Thursday, June 12, 2008

Life in a glass closet: in The Walker, Paul Schrader rediscovers the drifter living among the suffocating gossip queens of D.C.

As it gracefully drifts through the salons and concert halls, the boudoirs and gay bars of Washington, D.C. high society, there is the unmistakable sense that an investigation into milieu heavily informs The Walker, while its careful attention to the habits, posturing and accoutrements of its protagonist, one Carter Page III (Woody Harrelson), tighten the focus even more upon the ways in which one very particular character carefully maneuvers his way through it. Indeed, for all the violent crime, intrigue, corruption and rapid accumulation of conspiratorial hubbub, the film’s entire murder mystery is really just a macguffin. Paul Schrader’s latest work as writer/director is dressed a thriller, but below the sleek surface it’s really a character study, and you’d be best advised to approach it as such.

You also might want to brush up on your Schrader as prep. Every movie has its lineage, but some wear theirs more than others. What led Schrader to make The Walker was a longstanding desire to revisit the loosely defined “drifter” character previously glimpsed in Taxi Driver (1976), American Gigolo (80) and Light Sleeper (92), a fundamentally isolated man who exists on society’s fringe while, by virtue of his vocation, holds a special window that allows him to see into the very bowels of his surrounding world. In his 20s he drove cab, in his 30s he was a hustler, in his 40s he sold drugs. Now he’s 50 he works as an escort and gossip queen for the aging wives of wealthy politicians (among them the wonderful Lauren Bacall and Lily Tomlin). Among the pleasures of The Walker is the recognition of  this persona Schrader so clearly feels an affinity for. The fact that Carter Page III—“Car” to his lady friends—is of oppressively “respectable” Southern breeding and super, super gay only makes the scenario that much richer: Schrader’s lifelong obsessions with the inner recesses of masculinity inevitably lead him to consider both homosexuality and father issues.

Car moves in insidious circles where it’s okay to be queer so long as you know when to stifle it, thus when the shit-storm he finds himself in while attempting to cover up an affair between a political wife (Kristen Scott Thomas) and her viciously murdered lover compels Car’s kinda boyfriend (Moritz Bleibtreau) to propose the idea of blowing D.C., moving to New York, and living in openly committed bliss, Car freaks. He’s much more comfortable living in his glass closet. Harrelson embodies these contradictions superbly—for all the eye-batting and finger-snapping, the sucked-in cheeks, sea breezes, pinky ring, moustache, hairpiece and lilting drawl, his performance never feels camp. In fact, for all the best reasons, it feels very much like what it is: a man assuming a role or type to the precise degree that he feels it will serve his needs.

And Schrader? While the genre elements of the story are largely perfunctory, his affection for 80s neo-noir serves The Walker’s needs quite well, from the Dutch angles and the Venetian blinds to the soundtrack filled with cooing, synth-drenched vintage Bryan Ferry. Like so many Schrader films, there are some awkward moments, an uneasy, if always interesting relationship with classicism, and traces of some half-hearted idea of what might be commercial. The Walker, for all its merits, probably never had much of a chance of making big at the box office in today’s climate, but now that it’s on DVD from ThinkFilm, it will hopefully find the niche it deserves to rest in.

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