Monday, August 20, 2007

Review - The Walker

Paul Schrader has described Carter Paige III, the central figure in The Walker, as a continuation of the kind of character the writer/director has explored in many of his earlier films. In Taxi Driver, for which he provided the screenplay, the character was a young and angry loner; in American Gigolo he was a narcissistic sex worker revelling in the shallowness of the 80's; in Light Sleeper he was an anxious drug dealer struggling with his own insecurities. Now, in a natural extension of the homoerotic undertones which have often lurked in the background of these films, the character has come out of the closet. Carter Paige (played by Woody Harrelson) is another one of Schrader's outsiders; a lonely man drifting along on the outskirts of society, observing the lives of others while being unable to find any comfort in his own.

This time Schrader's protagonist is a 'walker', a man whose sole purpose is to act as companion and confidante to Washington's rich and powerful women. He accompanies them to social events, offers advice during shopping trips, and partakes in a weekly canasta game with three ladies (Kristin Scott-Thomas, Lauren Bacall and Lily Tomlin, all on good form), which is really an excuse to wallow in the latest slice of salacious gossip. Carter also has an on/off relationship with a photographer (Moritz Bleibtreau), although it's hard to ascertain what, if anything, these two have in common. It's a pretty comfortable existence for Carter but, in an echo of
American Gigolo, his world is shattered when he finds himself wrongly accused of a murder. In an effort to protect his friend Lynn's (Scott-Thomas) reputation, Carter tells the authorities that it was he who discovered the body of her murdered lover, but this act of loyalty to a friend is his downfall, as he starts hearing "the sound of doors closing all over town".

Aside from the central plot hook, the similarities between
The Walker and American Gigolo are obvious, but Schrader insists on continually drawing attention to them anyway. His direction is similarly cool and detached, he utilises a number of familiar visual tropes, and he even gives Carter a meticulously choreographed undressing sequence which acts as a clear counterpoint to Richard Gere's iconic dressing montage in the earlier film (the removal of Carter's hairpiece gives this one a neat punch line, though). In fact, The Walker is another handsome piece of work all round, but like Carter Paige himself it's just a stylish-looking shell.

There simply isn't anything going on here which is different or interesting enough to hold the viewers' attention; the plot is talky and pedestrian, and it's hard to invest any energy in following it when everything is unfolding in such a flaccid manner. Schrader's attempts to jazz things up generally consist of him tilting the camera at odd angles here and there (notably during a weirdly lethargic chase sequence), but
The Walker requires more than that to bring its moribund narrative to life. Much of the supporting players - including reliable pros like Willem Dafoe and Ned Beatty - are mere bystanders, and such background characters as Bleibtreau's photographer and William Hope's aggressive District Attorney are poorly developed. While the plot drifts towards a fuzzy conclusion, the director spends a little time taking pot-shots at the sour state of George W Bush's Washington, but they feel like empty gestures.

Where's the fire? Where's the danger? Where's the complexity which characterises Schrader's best work? The film's uninteresting plotting and flat direction is hard enough to take, but the most disappointing aspect of
The Walker is its inability to work as a character study, which is where Schrader generally excels. The casting of Harrelson, in a role which is unlike anything he has ever done, is a risky move which doesn't pay off. His performance is full of physical and vocal affectations, but his characterisation is all external, and it never feels like he gets inside Carter's head; he never successfully expresses the internal conflict his character is supposedly suffering from, and it gives the movie a dead centre. It's simply impossible to care about such a cold fish of a character, and Carter himself sums up his inadequacy as a compelling protagonist when he tells us "I'm not naïve, I'm just superficial". The Walker, unfortunately, is both.