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REVIEW | Southern Discomfort: Paul Schrader’s “The Walker”

REVIEW | Southern Discomfort: Paul Schrader's "The Walker"

Paul Schrader‘s fascination with life’s seamier underside continues in “The Walker,” whose titular character, Carter Page III is something of a latter-day incarnation of Richard Gere‘s American gigolo. He escorts bored, rich wives around town but, this time, he’s effectively neutered: “Car” is gay (though aside from a few chaste forehead pecks and a single kiss shared with his supposedly hot-for-him boyfriend, you wouldn’t know it), and trades on his Wildean (he wishes) wit rather than orgasms, a Washington D.C.-set Will for any Grace to hire. Schrader’s final entry into the so-called “night worker” or “lonely man” saga, loosely beginning with his “Taxi Driver” script for Scorsese and crystallized in writing-directing combos “American Gigolo” and later “Light Sleeper,” sees the filmmaker reworking the same movie again, but without illuminative expansion or revision–save for a more downbeat ending–and so the gesture goes wasted.

“The Walker,” as per its predecessors, features a male protagonist (leadenly played by Woody Harrelson) who makes a tax-free living, gets mixed up in a crime, and follows the beacon of redemption–real or imagined–shone by a woman at the center (this time around played by Kristin Scott Thomas). Though arriving 27 years after “Gigolo,” this latest has a similarly dated Eighties sheen to it; Schrader–deliberate artistic choice or no? –keeps “The Walker,” with its synthy soundtrack and unremarkable visuals, musically (minus Blondie) and aesthetically on a par with its antecedent. It plays like a throwback for other reasons as well, including Carter’s heavy Virginian accent–which conjures a particular brand of old-school Southern gentility (strange contrast to Harrelson’s cocky, day-trading Texan in the Coens‘ just-released “No Country for Old Men“)–at home in a high society milieu presided over by no less than grande dame Lauren Bacall as one of his regular clients.

Sitting around a table and playing weekly canasta in a private room, they, along with Thomas, Mary Beth Hurt, and an underutilized Lily Tomlin, seem to fancy themselves modern-day equivalents of Dorothy Parker’s vicious circle. But the famed screenwriter’s compensatory inclusions of “Oh, you!” and “Carter, you are outrageous!,” as voiced by the gal pals to greet the walker’s precious audacity, can’t disguise the lack of originality or bite in his banter.

Only a few scattered asides about the pronounced dangers of the current administration, plus the fact that Car’s lover (Moritz Bleibtreu) creates art evocative of Abu Ghraib images, places the film in the present, but these topical allusions don’t add up to more than mere window dressing. A would-be political potboiler (Sex! Intrigue! Murder!) laced with existential ambitions, “The Walker” fails to coalesce–unless, that is, you consider revelatory, as apparently Carter does, the realization that he’s as easily disposed of in this scandal-scared society as anyone, his formerly coveted company and celebrated late Congressman father notwithstanding. His inner turmoil, explained by that old chestnut of dime-store psychology–he can’t bear the indignity of not living up to the old man–is emblematic of a rutted endeavor, as dull as it desires to be scintillating.

[Kristi Mitsuda is a staff writer Reverse Shot and works at New York’s Film Forum.]

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