Review From Times Online
Woody Harrelson’s lesson in The Walker: don’t cross a venomous Washington wife
By James Christopher
A scene in The Walker in which Woody Harrelson undresses himself for bed is one of the most telling strips of film Paul Schrader has shot. The gay hero is dismantling his smooth public image in front of an expensive dressing-room mirror. He presses chunky cufflinks into plush velvet cushions. He pins an immaculately folded tie to a white satin tray. The piece-de-resistance is a state-of-the-art hairpiece. Once this is peeled off, the rest of our hero’s beauty tips unravel in seconds.
This subtle striptease goes to the heart of Schrader’s satire about Washington hypocrisy and manners. Harrelson plays Carter Page, a gay and witty socialite whose “job” involves squiring the wives of the rich and powerful because their husbands are elsewhere. Carter is adored for his bitchy gossip, inside information and smooth upper-class manners. He has a mouth full of southern marbles, and a senator father who famously indicted Nixon. “Your pa would have been proud of you,” is one of the poisonous lies forever flicked his way. His late father loathed him, and Carter has learnt to revel in the bitter memory. An oil painting of the tycoon glares down furiously from the wall.
At night, Carter sinks over the horizon with a young boyfriend (Moritz Bleibtreu) in gay twilight clubs. But this routine comedy of secrets and lies turns into an inflammable scandal when Carter inadvertently escorts his closest companion to the scene of a murder. Lynn Lockner (Kristin Scott Thomas), the wife of a hungry senator, stumbles upon the victims of a seedy murder and asks Carter to cover her tracks. Like the gentleman he is, Carter does the decent thing.
The sound of doors slamming all over town greets our reluctant hero when he is fingered as the prime suspect. The way the worm turns against Carter is brilliantly captured in performances dripping with insincerity and car-crash curiosity. You can’t fault Schrader’s moral venom. This is a film he has spent the best part of 30 years trying (and mostly failing) to make with little commercial backing. He has done wonders with a miniscule budget. The American locations are mostly assembled on the Isle of Man. A million more dollars might have lifted the threadbare production values to another level, but Schrader hasn’t made a big hit for such a long a time that few players with serious cash seem to trust him.
Nonetheless, it’s an impressive labour of love. The effect of the scandal on Carter’s coven of Washington wives, who still meet to play canasta, is electric. The cosy bitchiness around the card table becomes a frozen chill. Scott Thomas, an eerie spit of Hillary Clinton, reveals nothing of her own guilt while Carter’s life is being turned over by the homophobic FBI. Lily Tomlin’s icy politesse on the telephone is a chilly object lesson in how to drop your nearest and dearest from a great height. Lauren Bacall is terrific as an elderly matron who has seen loyalties betrayed for a favour. “Let me give you a piece of Washington wisdom,” she croaks. “Don’t stand between a friend and a firing squad.”
Schrader’s script is full of these pearls, and Bacall, sporting a bleached blonde bob, monopolises the best. “Memory is a very unreliable organ” she muses by way of condolence. “It’s right up there with the penis.” The irony of course is that Harrelson’s Carter is the only straight-talking and sincere character in this crisis.