To the cynical outsider or compulsive cable news viewer, it would seem as though our nation's capital is fueled by a sinister blend of sex, greed and scandal. Writer/director Paul Schrader (of Taxi Driver and Affliction fame; his searing Mishima gets the Criterion treatment later this summer) seems to think so, particularly in light of his elegant drama The Walker, which spins a chilly tale involving all three elements. He's aided in the telling by Woody Harrelson, arguably one of the most underrated character actors of his generation, who turns in an exceptional performance as Carter Page III, a man whose world is shaken and shattered by story's end.
A "walker," as the film explains, is a ne'er-do-well who functions as a companion to idly rich women and wives of Beltway insiders. Carter Page III (Harrelson) is a well-connected Washington insider, with familial and political ties going back decades. There isn't a secret whispered in town that Carter doesn't know about sooner or later. His circle of close friends -- Abby (Lily Tomlin), Natalie (Lauren Bacall) and Lynn (Kristin Scott Thomas) -- meets regularly at the Hargrave Hotel to play canasta and gossip wickedly. But when the dead body of a lobbyist turns up and Lynn becomes involved, Carter takes it upon himself to protect his friend and, more importantly, her senator husband Larry Lockner (Willem Dafoe).
It isn't long before the tale twists its way deep into the halls of power, revealing to Carter the limits of friendship but also its fickle nature -- as he probes the lobbyist's mysterious death, he learns about himself, his family's standing and just how easy it can be to end the illusion of power. Schrader deftly weaves commentary on the current state of affairs amid all of the drama, doing so without slowing down his story or overtly calling attention to it. (It's no accident that Carter's boyfriend, Emek -- played by Moritz Bleibtreu -- is an artist working on images of Abu Ghraib abuses.) By rooting The Walker in the current political climate, the tale has an extra bite to it, a dash of zest that makes the events that much more compelling.
While the film came and went at the box office with relatively little fanfare, it's a work that will no doubt find an audience on DVD, thanks in part to Schrader's efficient, downbeat tale, but also a stellar cast: Aside from Harrelson's note-perfect work -- the role of a gay man about town could've easily slipped into caricature, but Harrelson never does -- there's the whopping trifecta of Bacall, Tomlin and Scott Thomas, as all three women turn in reliably superb performances. Bleibtreu (perhaps best remembered from Run Lola Run) and Ned Beatty also shine.
The Walker is, at its core, a deeply jaded character study -- examining a man whose entire life seems to be a facade masking his true wishes and desires -- mixed with a whodunit murder mystery. In the making-of featurette, Schrader alludes to this film being the conclusion of a loose trilogy, with the first two films being Taxi Driver and American Gigolo; in that context, the film becomes even richer. As Schrader peels the layers from his characters, you become less concerned about who ultimately has the blood on their hands and more fascinated by the lengths to which these men and women will go to maintain a semblance of control. It's a subtle masterpiece and one of 2007's most overlooked films.
Presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1, this anamorphic widescreen transfer is near-immaculate throughout, with only the faintest hints of video noise dusting the backgrounds. Otherwise, it's a sharp, vivid and smooth image that conveys the dark nights and blindingly bright parlors in which all the nasty business is conducted.
Propelled forward primarily by dialogue, The Walker's Dolby Digital 5.1 track doesn't get very many moments to really put home theaters to the test, but rather allows the dialogue and score to be heard clearly, free from distortion or drop-out. It's a fine mix, with no discernible problems. An optional Dolby 2.0 stereo track is included, as are optional English and Spanish subtitles.
The disc is woefully short on bonus features, perhaps reflecting its middling box office performance: A three minute, 29 second featurette (presented in anamorphic widescreen) is your basic behind-the-scenes fluff, with the film's theatrical trailer and a trailer gallery completing the disc.
The Walker is, at its core, a deeply jaded character study -- examining a man whose entire life seems to be a facade masking his true wishes and desires -- mixed with a whodunit murder mystery. Yet, as Schrader peels the layers from his characters, you become less concerned about who ultimately has the blood on their hands and more fascinated by the lengths to which these men and women will go to maintain a semblance of control. It's a subtle masterpiece and one of 2007's most overlooked films. Highly recommended.