"Whoever has looked deeply into the world might well guess what wisdom lies in the superficiality of men," is a quotation attributed to Nietzsche. The first half of The Walker could be said to demonstrate such a principle, particularly the mien of its chief protagonist, Carter Page III (flawlessly played by Woody Harrelson). Yet the second half would give that observation an altogether more cynical meaning. One appropriate to the very men that Page despises.
Page exhibits the exquisite superficiality ("I'm not naïve: I'm superficial") so often associated with camp intellectuals (as well as a capacity for self-adulation). We first meet him during an opening panning shot that examines the luxurious wall fabrics in the room where several voices can be heard. Wall furnishings are something that Page III can associate with. Both in a literal aesthetic sense, and also as a man that is walled in by the societal prejudices against his homosexuality. One step removed from the visceral world of those who can openly admit their true feelings, Page III examines the details of everyday life with dispassion and critical elegance. But when his friend Lynn Lockner (wife of a liberal senator) discovers a murder, he is torn between two paths, both equally morally repugnant.
While not quite a saint, Page III has a much higher sense of decency than the political connivers and sexually bigoted people that surround him. These people use superficial appearances to make money, win office, or rise at any cost. Their 'wisdom' is simply that of the top dog – having torn and bloodied anyone who stood in their way.
Bacall, instantly recognisable by her charismatic voice, is the perfect foil for Page's charm and mendacity. Quick-witted, she reminds us of her early characters in films like To Have and Have Not and Key Largo. "You were just a young slip of a girl, not the beautiful woman you are now," says Page. "Cut the sh*t!" she replies, without for a minute losing her majestic gravitas.
Page is a 'Walker' – although working one day a week in a real estate office, his main income is comes from when he "walks rich women from place to place." The term was coined for Jerry Zipkin, who was Nancy Reagan's 'walker'. His duties include amusing gossip, taking Lynn to the opera and a weekly game of canasta. Immaculately dressed and coiffured, he inhabits the world of the unostentatiously rich without ever becoming a main player. His father was a respected governor and his father before him a successful businessman ("My grandfather always talked like a man with a bible half-open in his head."). He is gay, and therefore not a threat. And he is well-read, well-bred, and a delightful conversationalist.
Yet although Harrelson stars in every scene, The Walker succeeds very much as an ensemble piece. Bacall and Kristin Scott Thomas have a fair share of excellent lines. "Memory is a very unreliable organ," says Bacall: "It's right up there with the penis." Kristin Scott Thomas also gives Page a fair run for his money. When he says dismissively in a conversation that, "it's just sex," she retorts with, "And that stuff you're breathing is just oxygen!" Page has an unlikely lover in the form of Emek Yoglu, a German-Turkish artist whose photography is too politically loaded for Page's tastes. But the main man in Page's life is his dead father, who symbolises both the success Page III has never achieved and perhaps moral double-standards that he loathes. Yet at the same time Page himself leads a life a double-life, not out of choice but because it is forced on him.
Writer/director Paul Schrader picked Washington DC as the setting for the film because of "the deep hypocrisy of the town, Washington and Salt lake City are two of the last cities in America where sexual hypocrisy is mandated, and here is a character living a false and superficial life, so it seemed an ideal place for it." It is one of Schrader's best scripts (apart from a few unlikely coincidences to move the plot along) and the performances are perfect. The lush cinematography sucks us into the world of the rich and stylish (with Bryan Ferry songs to assure us it's OK) so that 'reality' – in the form of murder most foul – is all the more unsettling. Only as the authorities brazenly attempt to implicate Page do some of his hairs come out of place. "This is a mean crowd, this administration," he admits falteringly. (Lynn calls them 'the cave dwellers'). They can't catch him for what he hasn't done so they'll find something else. "It's perjury that catches people out," the investigator says to him (with shades of Clinton witch-hunting).
The loner-whose-world-crumbles-around him is a favourite premise for Schrader and the subtle political complexities are home territory for Harrelson, who is no stranger to such themes in films such as North Country, Wag the Dog, Welcome to Sarajevo and The People vs. Larry Flynt. But the film's weakness is its constant subtlety. We are expected to be fascinated by the undercurrents, the hidden cards – so much so that some audiences may switch off. The Walker is clever and perfectly executed but, like its subject matter, is a superficial observer of the dilemmas it grapples with at arm's length.
Perhaps such prominence of aesthetics over substance is the way to provoke discussion of the problems dealt with so obtusely. "I think film is a great medium to be able to discuss such issues," says Kristin Scott Thomas. "Although politics changes very rapidly, it also repeats itself over and over in a different context. When you see films that are making a comment about the political situation of a certain time and then you see another film thirty years later and you have the same kind of issue, it creates discussion and that is very important."
An escort who caters to Washington D.C.'s society ladies becomes involved in a murder case.
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