Running time 107 minutes
Written and directed by Paul Schrader
Starring Woody Harrelson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Willem Dafoe, Lauren Bacall
You see them in Beverly Hills, Palm Beach and the concrete canyons of Manhattan. They are called “walkers” because they walk through the gossip columns and society pages on the arms of rich, beautiful, glamorous boldface women who are bored and lonely and always a little bit desperate, escorting them to charity benefits, museums, concert halls and Broadway openings when their husbands are too smart, lucky or otherwise engaged to do it themselves. Walkers are the men in Armani blazers and Hermès ascots who make perfect fourths for bridge, fill important gaps at dinner tables with Baccarat crystal and place cards, and photograph well on red carpets. They are almost always gay, therefore witty and harmless, and look like Truman Capote and Jerome Zipkin. They could absolutely never, under any circumstances, be confused with Woody Harrelson.
And yet, here he is, without his overalls and bare feet, wearing a slickly gelled toupee the color of peach cobbler and a nervously curled smile below his pencil mustache, hopelessly miscast in a load of misguided miasma called The Walker. Clueless about walkers, their manicured world or how to play one, Mr. Harrelson nervously flutters and minces his way through a Truman Capote impersonation he must have learned from studying Philip Seymour Hoffman, but he’s lost from the start, like Willie Nelson playing Louis XIV.
He is playing Carter Page III, a rich, sophisticated, well-bred Washington, D.C., playboy with a distinguished family history in the halls of power who knows all the right people in the daylight, but prowls all the wrong gay bars after midnight. Mostly he dishes the dirt in a snobbish Southern drawl, wearing color-coordinated cashmeres and accessories from his neatly arranged cuff-link drawer, with power-wife socialites Lauren Bacall, Lily Tomlin and Mary Beth Hurt. After his nightly rounds, he goes home to the discreetly hidden lover who endures the rants of a drama queen with an understanding that is not always convincing. The wafer-thin plot is nothing you could write home about, but what little there is involves Page’s loyalty to his best friend, Lynn (Kristin Scott Thomas), wife of the U.S. Senate minority leader (Willem Dafoe). Lynn is having a secret affair with a lobbyist, and when her boyfriend is stabbed to death, it’s Page who tells a big lie to give her an alibi and protect her from the media circus that could ruin her husband’s political career, only to find himself a murder suspect as well as the victim of a blackmail plot that leads all the way to the vice president’s office. “In former times,” he lisps, “men who lied would get their testicles tied. Today they get a TV show.” Now it is Page who faces front-page scandal and the potential ruin of his family’s honor. Walkers, it seems, have their own old-fashioned scruples. When the tables turn, they might be surprised to discover who their real friends are.
Writer-director Paul Schrader specializes in tough examinations of ordinary people trapped in the headlights of social pathology. From Hardcore to Auto Focus (not to mention Taxi Driver, which he wrote for Martin Scorsese), many of his films have lasting effects that haunt me still. It is especially disappointing when he stumbles. But The Walker is not a polished or coherent film. It’s more like a work in progress. Casting Woody Harrelson was a tactical error from which the overall concept never recovers. Every time he appears in a new tuxedo, you keep wishing the camera would drop to the floor to see if he’s wearing any shoes. It’s always great to see Lauren Bacall back in the saddle, and Mr. Schrader has given her the best lines. I mean, who can resist a chuckle when that smoky voice rises from a lighthouse mist to observe: “Memory is a most unreliable organ—right up there with the penis”? Nobody polishes a cameo better. Unfortunately, neither the cameos nor the leading characters in The Walker are fully developed. It’s hard to tell just what the point really is. There’s tentativeness and trepidation in every scene, like the way people drive in Los Angeles every time it rains.