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December 6, 2007

The Walker

Schrader's sex and politics ethical thriller gets caught -- and stuck -- in the wayback machine

Larry Craig getting outed in an airport bathroom is just the latest reminder that sexual hypocrisy in political circles will never be a moot topic. And when every Iraq feature to date fails to say anything beyond, "Gee, this war sucks," even the slightest hint of political commentary is welcome from the man who gave us Travis Bickle. But for a film aspiring to relevance, The Walker -- which ostensibly addresses both of the above issues -- is neutrally weighted in every topical regard. It looks shiny and boasts a great (or at least committed) lead performance, but has absolutely no spark, infuriating or otherwise. Copping out under the label of "character study" (and inadequate even at that), The Walker marshals charged present-day time and place to no apparent effect; it's the story of an ethical freak-out that could have taken place, with only slight tweaks, 30 years ago.

That era is still hanging over Carter Page III (Woody Harrelson). Page II thundered against Nixon in the Watergate hearings; his son can't even manage to live up to his name by delivering messages to congressmen, let alone shaping policy. Instead, he's a “walker,” GQ-coined slang for gay men who spend their days in the company of DC society ladies, playing canasta and buying fabric patterns. Ears open, lips perpetually parted in mildly catty comment, he works a token day every week at a real estate agency. The gossip from the other six days makes him more than an asset to the firm.

Sexually neutered in polite society, Carter's gay life -- e.g., the entire scope of his personal life -- is politely kept to himself: After an evening at the opera, he walks into a gay club wearing the finest '70s gay attire, carefully alone. Schrader can't resist filming Page's entrance in the noir, induction-into-a-sleazy-underworld tradition; the canted camera weaves as Page strolls into a stereotypical gay hell, all smoke-blowing bar residents and dark lights. It's a rare moment of overkill in a film that typically can't be bothered.

Sexual deviancy leads to trouble, straight or gay: Carter's best female friend Lynn Lockner (Kristin Scott Thomas) discovers a dead body where her illicit lover should be, and Carter has to cover up for her. What's a poor little rich boy to do? Lockner browbeats him for not living up to his dad until she needs his help, shuts up and disappears; Carter's lover Emek (Moritz Bleibtrau) delivers a reinforcing lecture every 15 minutes. After being harangued repeatedly for most of the film, over-explicitly framed against a red wall, Carter gets mad and says it's all a lie: Daddy was a corrupt man, and why should he fight to honestly represent himself when Daddy lied? The murder plot takes a back seat to father issues.

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I'm not sure what Schrader is getting at with any of this. Topical allusions to Iraq are sprinkled in like Kinks songs in a Wes Anderson movie, though lacking the effect. While some 30 years later it is hardly original to suggest that Schrader's Calvinist upbringing weighs heavily enough upon him to overthink sexual guilt but... well, it does. Only he would create a film which touches upon committee corruption, hints at a hatred for the military-industrial complex, but still make its number-one priority a delayed coming-out party of sorts. (The only option for Carter to really own his gayness, as it turns out, is to move to New York. West Coast people are going to get so mad when they learn about this advice.)

As it happens, 30 years ago is where The Walker belongs. With its tired portrait of polite political society masking huge doses of corruption and patriarchal privilege while women discreetly crack wise in the background, it's as outdated as Carter's mustache. (Thirty years ago, a cast including Ned Beatty as Senator Corruption and Lily Tomlin as his wife might also have been far more exciting.)

When I wasn't trying to figure out what was going on or why it mattered -- why, for example, Emek whines about not getting gallery openings for his self-consciously offensive art, a plot strand that has no relevance other than to imply that everyone who moves to New York gets an opening -- I marveled at the bizarre technical choices. Schrader shoots a simple scene in a car between Page and Lockner -- the two alternately talking and sitting in uncomfortable silence -- in profile, but also from behind, and then from behind the back of the car, necessitating a cut that includes outside ambient noise before returning in two seconds to the silent inside of the car.

What's the rush? There's certainly no urgency anywhere else in this movie. Harrelson gives it his all, transforming a potential Tennessee Williams caricature into something human, but it wasn't enough to get my pulse anywhere near running.



Comments (2)

The term "walker" was by no means "coined" by GQ. It has been around for eons. But to know that you'd have to know something about gay life and Mr. Rizov is clueless.
Carter's life is not "entirely kept to himself." He's an out gay man drifting along in the upper circles of the Beltway -- much like his model the late Jerome Zipkin. Schrader knows his stuff. This is a very precise portrait of BushCo. this very minute -- not 30 years ago. And freakshows like Larry craig have nothing to do with gay men at this level. The most fascianting scene find Carter singing Al Smith's campaign song -- a bit of polticial trivia that men of his ilk would know. Schrader has always been interested in gay life, and this is his least sensational sortie into it -- characterized by the fact that this time he puts the hommage ot "Pickpocket" in the middle rather than at the end as he usually does.

David, you called me on GQ, it's what the press kit said (indeed, I had a bad feeling when I read Hoberman's review and saw the Nancy Reagan note). I apologize for that error. But I'm well acquainted with your special brand of disembowelment for all who incur your wrath, and I'm not taking the bait. Your points are well-taken, and they're minutae I can't pick up on — my circle of gay acquintances was not around to tutor me through this review - but do you really have to breath fire at all who cross your path?

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