Set in Washington D.C., this molasses-flavored thriller stars Woody Harrelson as Carter Page III, a sort of low-rent Truman Capote without the bibliography to back him up. Truman is actually one of the only gay authors whom Carter does not quote (unless I missed the reference), but we do see that Carter owns a book about him. That's probably a telling character trait, that Carter may be less inclined to read the books than he is to read about the scandals around the books. It's also a trait of this movie, which feels like it circles its subjects rather than leaping down into the middle of them.
Carter's father was a famous Senator who took on Richard Nixon, making the old man a kind of hero in the political waters Carter swims in. This reverence of the deceased Carter Page II is a source of great annoyance to the man's son, since Senior didn't approve of Junior's sexual orientation. This is something that Carter's enemies understand about him, that the chill of Daddy's shadow induces frostbite. In particular, an ambitious U.S. attorney named Mungo Tenant (William Hope) sees Carter as his stepping stone into the higher echelons of power. When a lobbyist (Steven Hartley) gets himself murdered and Carter is the one who reports the body, Mungo sets his sights on Carter and the people he knows.
It's who Carter knows that ends up being the sticky wicket. Lynn Lockner (Kristin Scott Thomas) is a member of Carter's canasta circle, and she's the one who really found the dead body. She was having an affair with the deceased--an affair Carter chauffeured her to--and since she is married to a liberal Senator (Willem Dafoe) who the Neocons would love to see toppled, it wouldn't do for her to be locked in a scandal like this. Thus, Carter covers for her, and thus he finds himself as the person of the most interest in the investigation. As the doors around D.C. close to him, he begins to realize how fragile his friendships are. In particular, he knows it's someone particularly close selling both he and Lynn out, he's just not sure who.
There is a lot of meat for Schrader (who also directed Auto Focus and Affliction) to sink his teeth into in The Walker. The film makes no bones about which side of the political fence it falls on, and there is much commentary about the state of the U.S. government at this particular place in time. Unfortunately, Schrader lets that be more his backdrop than his ultimate point, and he ends up gumming the issues rather than devouring them as he probably should. Without the politics, there isn't much left.
Beyond that, it's hard to put a finger on exactly where The Walker went wrong, where what could have been a really good movie became a merely okay one. It's well directed and the script is rock solid. It's also excellently cast. In addition to Scott Thomas, Carter's wealthy ladies of choice are played by Lily Tomlin and the great Lauren Bacall, proving she still has as much moxie now as she ever did. Woody Harrelson also shows new shades of talent heretofore unseen from the actor. He plays Carter as a vain man who hides behind illusions as phony as his well-combed wig, who has spent his life cultivating an image of superficiality so he wouldn't have to deal with the risk of exposing who he really is. Showing his true colors brought down the wrath of his Papa, and so better to be a preening cipher than a substantial individual.
Eventually, though, a character like this has to be cracked open and all the stuff he's been keeping inside should come spilling out. Instead, Schrader keeps his distance, never giving Carter his Michael Clayton moment. When Carter does uncover pieces of the truth, he holds them gingerly between two fingers and carries them outside to set them free, rather than smashing them with his shoe. At one point, Bacall's character instructs him to stop being so damn polite, and it's one of the greater "physician heal thyself" moments of recent film memory. You wrote that line, Mr. Schrader, so how did you miss its meaning?
Since The Walker has been cut to the pace of Harrelson's ambling southern drawl, Schrader asks a lot of his audience. It's worth sticking around because there are some very good scenes at the end, but the movie could have done with a little more pep to keep it from feeling longer than it really is. Carter Pierce III's job may technically be to walk with his wealthy gal pals, but he at least has the smarts to get in the car and drive. So, too, could Paul Schrader have stepped on the gas.