Paul Schrader’s cinema is largely defined by the pathology of his male protagonists, and with The Walker, he’s added a striking new character to his gallery of loners.

Carter Page III (Woody Harrelson) is the degenerate scion of a political family. Openly gay and eminently presentable, this American aristo makes himself useful as a companion to the neglected wives of the Washington elite—gabbing over canasta or escorting them to the opera. (Hence the term “walker,” coined to describe Nancy Reagan’s frequent squire Jerry Zipkin.) Cast against type, Harrelson rewards Schrader with a nuanced, if showy, performance, reveling in a Capote-like mush-mouthed drawl and flagging his sub-Capote bon mots with insinuating hand gestures.

Filmed quite credibly in London, The Walker evokes a town of mighty rubes and backbiting yentas (including heavy-hitters Lauren Bacall and Lily Tomlin, both in fine grande dame fettle). Carter, however, has a special fondness for the vulnerable Lynn (Kristin Scott Thomas), a sad-eyed lady of the lowlands, unhappily married to liberal senator Larry Lockner (Willem Dafoe with a Gary Hart ’do). Once Lynn discovers her lobbyist lover stabbed to death and gallant Carter puts down his copy of Suetonius to shield her, The Walker settles into thriller mode.

Carter is hauled into the U.S. Attorney’s office for interrogation by a particularly nasty twerp (William Hope). Meanwhile, the canasta crowd gossips about the murder—sex or money? The third alternate, politics, goes unmentioned. Schrader has denied that The Walker is a political film. However, it’s not only political, it’s nostalgic for politics. When his lawyer invokes the martyrdom of Susan McDougal, who spent two years in prison rather than inform on Bill Clinton, Carter expresses magnolia-scented melancholy: “That seems like another era.”

Indeed. There are many references to Bush and more to the unnamed vice president who’s the actual locus of clout. “It’s a mean crowd, this administration,” Carter muses. Iraq is constantly on TV, and Carter’s younger lover (German actor Moritz Bleibtreu, playing a German Turk) is an avant-garde painter who draws inspiration from Abu Ghraib. The Walker reeks of the Patriot Act. “Don’t fuck with the feds,” Carter’s lawyer warns. “After 9/11, they took the leash off—they do whatever they want.” As with Brian De Palma in Redacted, the movie-brat auteur can’t resist drawing parallels between imperial Bushland and the America of his glory days—in this case, the Watergate era. Even more, however, Schrader wants to locate The Walker in the context of his oeuvre.

Nothing if not self-conscious, Schrader habitually plants clues in his press notes, cuing reviewers to connect the dots. Note then that The Walker reprises a sequence from American Gigolo by lavishing close-ups on Carter’s collection of cashmere sweaters, silk paisley ties, and tastefully bejeweled cuff links, while providing a new punch line when the dandy delicately removes his rug; a later montage quotes Light Sleeper, using an overhead camera to show Carter’s nocturnal tossing and turning.

Thus, following Gigolo’s fastidious hustler and Sleeper’s ascetic drug dealer, Carter Page is another would-be variation on the protagonist of Bresson’s Pickpocket, an isolated soul who finds redemption. (Of course, given that The Walker reiterates the conventional wisdom that the cover-up is worse than the crime, it might be that Schrader identifies with a certain form of amoral entertainer: gigolo, pusher, court jester. The filmmaker even supplies his own defense: “I’m not naive, I’m superficial,” Carter declares in a line that’s all but lit up in lights.)

Haunted by the specter of his senator father, an oft-declared “great man” and hero of the Watergate hearings whom Carter knows to have been a fraud, this protag appears to have a more complicated morality than his precursors. He’s also a sadder case. Is Lynn using him? Could be. Are the cops planting evidence? Sure seems that way. Will he take the fall? Doesn’t look like he’s got much choice. As the pressure mounts, Carter’s code of honor seems inexplicable, not least when he tells his boyfriend that, in their loyalty to Lynn, they are “ridiculous.”

In its final third, The Walker falls apart. Emotional murk rises, stakes are lowered, and, despite a late dose of Hardy Boys derring-do, drama founders. Confrontations with the ultimate D.C. fixer (Ned Beatty) and the lady whose honor Carter protected fall flat, even as his redemption drops down from nowhere. This is a serious movie and, gliding around the center of power, a stylish one. But, like its protagonist, The Walker is unable to finish the job.

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