|Cast:||Woody Harrelson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lauren Bacall, Moritz Bleibtreu, Lilly Tomlin, Ned Beatty|
My anticipation for The Walker wasn’t nearly as high as for the typical Paul Schrader film, as I’d read on IMDb it was a remake of American Gigolo. Though remakes are certainly a few steps above the history rewriting rereleases of Schrader’s sellout peers where considering terrorists to be hippies and having secret servicemen point deadly walkie-talkies is considered a major improvement, maybe 1% of them serve any purpose beyond cashing in on another attempt to erase history. Though Schrader ostensibly remade one of the all-time greatest horror films, Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, unlike Martin Scorsese’s version of Cape Fear, Schrader reworked it to the point it was his own inferior but still very good film. For my money, Schrader remains the only notable member of the “movie brats” to have never sold out. Scorsese and Brian De Palma may beat him out for overall body of work, but they also gave us The Aviator and Mission to Mars. Paul Schrader’s previous film Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist was inarguably a failure, but at least he failed being Paul Schrader rather than caving into the silly demands of Morgan Creek Productions.
Luckily, The Walker isn’t a remake at all, but rather another of Schrader’s variations on a moral dilemma brought to a head by outside stimulus. It could be from your daughter running away and becoming a porn star as in Hardcore. Maybe you run into your former lover you still pine for who is now off drugs and realize even though you are too, the facts she won’t believe you and you’re too old to be involved in the increasingly dangerous and crazy dealing business makes you reconsider your course as in Light Sleeper. Perhaps it’s from pulling off a heist because you can’t earn enough honestly to pay your bills as in Blue Collar. Schrader is proving the possibilities are endless.
Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, Light Sleeper, & The Walker are the most closely linked of Schrader’s films. Each are reworkings of the Michael character in Robert Bresson’s brilliant Pickpocket, telling tales of the ill-advised efforts of alienated loners to connect with a woman through somehow saving them. These characters have a brush with some form of acceptance, but realize it’s impossible for them and ultimately seek redemption. The Walker’s Carter Page III (Woody Harrelson) may come the closest of the bunch, as though he’s the disreputable black sheep of his “honorable” family, it’s a family that’s been rich and on the inside for their three previous generations. He knows everyone who is anyone in Washington D.C., but he’s merely part of the woodwork, present but with no say similar to the court jester.
American Gigolo is closest to The Walker, as Schrader revisits an escort of rich females later in life, examining how he’s been changed by the current political climate. He’s grown increasingly superficial and come out of the closet, but he masks his true self more than ever. No one knows anything about his private life, where he has a German-Turkish photographer/artist lover (Moritz Bleibtreu), as the gossip master refuses to speak of anything remotely personal, knowing it’ll only be frowned upon and used against him. Carter’s homosexuality leaves him hated by most of the males in Washington, including his father, who he’s still trying to please ten years after his death. The only bright side of being out is it allows him to chaperon the neglected old biddies to the cultural events their husbands have no interest in without them fearing he’ll create a scandal by having an affair with them.
Richard Gere’s typically unconvincing performance is the primary reason I don’t consider American Gigolo to be one of the 11 good films Paul Schrader has directed thusfar. It’s as if they decided we need a narcissist, who could be better than Richard Gere? But Gere never immerses himself deeply enough into a character that you can forget he’s Richard Gere. Woody Harrelson may be a hit and miss performer, but is much better casting because just as he couldn’t be over the top in Natural Born Killers, he can’t be self conscious in The Walker. Harrelson makes narcissism crucial to his mannered performance, emphasizing the inessential, but he also intrigues us about what lies beneath. His richly layered and textured performance that’s showy for the other characters more than for the camera and subtly witty through the restrained wit of a wordsmith surpasses his work in Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt as the best of his career.
Carter is effete, meticulous, charming, elegant, intelligent, gracious, complimentary, and most of all incredibly polite. Some of his characteristics may be due to being a well-bred descendant of wealth (accrued through slave trade, tobacco, and political office), others to his homosexuality, but mostly his entire life consists of playing his role of pleasing and amusing through whatever means possible. Carter never gets excited or riled up, and we learn he hopes to avoid conflict by remaining on the outskirts, smiling and letting the storm pass. However, we wonder if anything is truly meaningful to him. His father was truly a crook, but is only remembered as a legend who helped take Tricky Dick down in the Watergate Trials. In Light Sleeper Willem Dafoe’s character says, "You drift from day to day... Years pass." Carter seems to have followed the same path.
Schrader lulls the audience into the decadent world of expensive clothes and plush decor where there’s a certain detachment from reality that allows anything to go as long as you smile and pretend you have everyone’s best interest at heart. We quickly realize everyone is two faced. They are glad to use you if they can, but don’t count on anyone putting anything above self interest.
Only Lynn Lockner (Kristin Scott Thomas) seems to believe Carter is different. Lynn fashions him as a leftist of similar conviction, but does Page really believe in anything or is Lynn simply projecting onto the blank slate Carter so skillfully presents? Lynn might be the one to know, as she’s the one woman Page escorts who may be a real friend. She’s more fragile and less happy then the other grand dames of the weekly canasta game such as Natalie (Lauren Bacall) and Abigail Delorean (Lily Tomlin). She’s also emotionally detached and probably just another actor.
Schrader plays with whether Carter & Lynn are real friends or simply more friendly pretenders. It makes a difference because when Page drives Lynn to her usual tryst with Robbie Kononsberg (Steven Hartley), a lobbyist Lynn’s Democratic Senator husband Larry (Willem Dafoe) is investigating for illegalities that made the higher ups even richer, she discovers Robbie’s been stabbed to death. Lynn can’t inform the authorities without causing a scandal that may undermine her husband, and can’t just pretend she was never there because her fingerprints are on the door knob, so knight in shining armor Carter drives her home and cleans her tracks before calling the police from Robbie’s.
“They go with what they have, and I’m what they have,” says Page on why he’s seemingly the only suspect. Schrader regularly takes pot shots at the nastiness of the current regime. Corruption, hypocrisy, looting, subversion of the truth, homophobia, Abu Ghraib torture, shady reductions of freedom, discarding checks and balances, and blending church and state all get a nod. Schrader realizes Ventriloquist Cheney is the power and muscle of the outfit, who likely remain unnamed because the film is not only about killing for politics rather than sex or money, but at one point Page suggests the Vice President is the one who had Robbie murdered.
With the possible exception of Patty Hearst, which involves the Symbionese Liberation Army but is made from the perspective of a victim who acts far more due to peer pressure than out of conviction, Schrader has largely avoided politics since his debut feature Blue Collar. Blue Collar seemed to lean more toward the right, based on widespread corruption but coming off anti union due to the characters wrongheaded decision to steal back the money they got no actual representation for paying. Maintaining the widespread corruption take, The Walker leans left for reasons beyond the character being part of the no quarter system rather than the buddy system. That being said, the political points aren’t merely agenda, they serve as the basis for the dire threat to Carter’s freedom, creating the paranoid self-preservational atmosphere of fear the characters live with. This is a world where people not only know guilt and innocence take a back seat to persecution of those whose values and lifestyle doesn’t match the administration’s, they tend to act accordingly.
Schrader doesn’t have any particular interest in the genre elements, which simply allow him to show the indifference the Washington players have toward justice and present Page with the potential to redeem himself though refusing to rat Lynn out. It’s fairly obvious the outcome of the mystery and thriller aspects will never be a match for the intrigue, but I don’t really get what some people expect from the film. While it’s true that after hinting high, Schrader ultimately reduces the stakes of the murder mystery to virtually inconsequential, only a few other fictions such as Joe Dante’s Homecoming and Brian De Palma‘s Redacted have had the guts to make any sort of a legitimate challenge to the Bush administration. Schrader can’t come out with some sensationalism where Cheney’s stand-in is actually held accountable for crimes Schrader himself concocted. In order to get away with that result it would have to very obviously not be about the Bush presidency, which would then set the film in a vacuum and eliminate much of his purpose of reexamining the walker character. The result has little to do with his reason for making the film, so he remains in the realm of realism. A few pawns disappear, the traces of their existence are quickly whisked away, and king and queen remain firmly entrenched on their throne.
The Walker isn’t about changing the grand scheme of things, it’s a well-observed character study about changing yourself. Carter has spent his life hiding behind his own superficiality. His walker job prevents him from expressing anything close to his true feelings, except in jest. If he’s to be any different than the other Washington insiders he can’t quickly save himself, even in a case such as this where he’s admittedly trapped between disloyalty and dishonesty, which in some senses are one in the same. He can no longer attain more power through hiding behind the mask of morality, civility, and decency. His moral code must kick in and prevent him from taking the easy way out, from acting the way the supposedly better people do.
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