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Two years ago, à propos his performance in The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, I wrote of Woody Harrelson that "he is no longer a callow youth but a serious actor." Just how serious was brought home to me yesterday, by the actor's amazing portrait of an ageing, gay, WASPy pretty Washingtonian. I am not familiar with all of Mr Harrelson's movies (to say the least), but I'd be very surprised if he has ever played anyone like Carter Page III, the protagonist and true subject of Paul Schrader's The Walker. As far as I know there has never been anyone like Carter at the dead center of a major American motion picture. It isn't Carter's homosexuality that is so striking — there's actually very little of that, strictly speaking — but his persona, which is as swishy as it's possible for a well-bred man's to be. The son of a Congressional hero of Watergate and scion of a Virginia family of some repute, Carter behaves like a gentleman at all times (yes, one imagines, even those times), albeit a gentleman who's a success at both real estate and interior decoration. He makes no attempt to hide the implication that he is a lethally well-informed gossip. When they run into Carter at social events, which he usually attends as the squire of some powerful senator's wife, men who knew and admired his father can barely hide their contempt and disgust for the great man's son.
What Mr Harrelson does all the way through The Walker is show us how Carter comes to terms with himself every minute of every day in a hostile town. Although very much from Washington, he is not of it, The story that's told in The Walker is interesting not for the intensifying suspense that plays across its surface but for the message that it sends to its hero, a message that, anticlimactically perhaps, he seems prepared to receive. The message is this: Carter cannot carve out an alternative respectability in Washington by consorting with the wives of highly-placed men. He may fill a need in their lives, but they cannot be good for him, as becomes obvious when one of them, Lynn Lockner (Kristin Scott Thomas), a woman whom he has known since their youth, steps into a bloody scandal. Seriously overestimating the authority that he carries, Carter comes to her aid and covers for her, by pretending to discover the body that she walked in on (and whose former occupant she may have killed). Just why suspicion falls on Carter, and why it subsequently lifts, are not questions that concern Mr Schrader very deeply. It's enough for him that the US Attorney, Mungo Tennant (William Hope), harbors a long-standing resentment of Carter, who prepped at a better school. The scenes in which Mungo grills Carter are both painful and frightening because they remind us of the pious lawlessness that has infected so many Americans in positions of responsibility. But The Walker is only glancingly interested in the Bush nightmare. It might have been no more a melodrama about an innocent man who, by standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, provides a very convenient prospective defendant. Indeed, this is what The Walker seems to be for much of its length. But we're not left with the satisfactions of a well-played mystery. Instead, we have the greater satisfaction of an indelible characterization, haunting and sympathetic, that ought to be experienced by every serious moviegoer.
Woody Harrelson does a great deal more than copy the gestures of someone who's light in the loafers. He shows us how Carter Page silently chews over the insults to which his way of life has opened him. A realtor and decorator who accompanies matrons to the opera does not have to be openly gay to earn the contempt of Washington's wolf pack, but the homosexuality does appear to constitute an ultimate, uniquely unforgivable lapse. Carter is not beyond fighting back with a clever word or two, but he keeps his pain — and his shame — to himself. That he ought not to be made to feel shame is never allowed to become grounds for audience indignation: we are not to feel sorry for Carter. As he tells his lover (Moritz Bleibtreu), he can take care of himself. Moments after he makes this boast, it is shown not to be entirely true. But it is true enough. Carter can take care of himself with sufficient competence that he doesn't have to devote his entire life to doing so; his life, on the whole, he enjoys. It is a complicated and somewhat dark enjoyment, a pleasure that calls Gore Vidal and Vincent Price to mind, but it is certainly not sadness. His easy smile and twinkling eyes leave no doubt of Carter's deep and happy kindness.
The Walker may take a while to find its audience. Quite aside from the considerable career risk that Woody Harrelson has taken, The Walker is well-known to have a powerhouse cast of leading ladies, maturing (Ms Scott Thomas), mature (Lily Tomlin) and positively ageless (Lauren Bacall); but audiences may be in for a letdown when they discover that the women whom these actresses play are not the independent figures that they appear to be at the outset. They are rather the adjuncts of powerful men. Even Lynn Lockner, who shares Carter's prestigious Washington background, seems to have little or no standing apart from her husband, Larry (Willem Dafoe). Ms Tomlin's Abigail Delorean is an even more craven accessory of her Cheneyesque husband, Jack (Ned Beatty). Only the (presumably) widowed Natalie van Miter (Ms Bacall) appears to do as she pleases — but as an old woman who has had enough trouble for several lifetimes, she pleases not to be quite the friend that Carter expected. Her political capital, she all but advises us, is not unlimited, and she intends to spend it, when at all, very wisely. Which is to say: selfishly.
For all the glamour that these ladies bring — it is somewhat paradoxically quickened by a toxically smiling, slightly doughy Mary Beth Hurt — The Walker belongs one hundred percent to its male lead, who is every bit as glamorous. I found that I was ready for this unexpected movie, and I hope that everyone else is, too. (December 2007)
Copyright (c) 2007 Pourover Press