Let me give you a piece of Washington wisdom. Never stand between your friend and a firing squad.
— Natalie Van Miter (Lauren Bacall)
Man a if I ever tell you bout Maxine,
You would a say I don’t know what I know.
— Chaka Demus & Pliers
Carter Page III (Woody Harrelson) is in his element. Or so he presumes. Playing canasta with a flock of Washington DC doyens, he’s at once entertaining and wily, distracting his audience with tales of minor intrigue or major embarrassment, his tone soothing and his wit sharp. The camera circles the hotel room repeatedly, revealing their expensive environs and indicating the spinning-wheel effects of their ennui and gossip. When the chat turns to an acquaintance’s sexual dalliance, Lynn (Kristin Scott Thompson) reports she’s heard he “throws for the other side.” Car asserts his authority while denying the rumor: “I am the gay weathervane,” he coos. And his ladies like it that way.
Car is the titular focus of The Walker, a Southern boy whose father was a tobacco farmer and liberal Senator (admired by everyone, it seems, but Carter). Now Car escorts mucky-mucks’ wives, like Lynn, who must make appearances but most often without their too-busy or too-hateful politico husbands. Like the heroes of several of Paul Schrader’s other films — American Gigolo, Light Sleeper, and, to an extent, Auto Focus — Car moves among women as if visiting an alien planet. By turns bemused and bored by their behaviors, he doesn’t so much judge his patrons — who include the deliciously named Abigail Delorean (Lily Tomlin) and Natalie Van Miter (Lauren Bacall) — as use them, for access, status, and general entertainment value. He has his own money, which he spends on designer jackets, shoes, and dressing gowns, tasteful décor, and a predilection for the Kennedy Center and elegant restaurants.
That’s not to say he doesn’t like his catty companions or that he doesn’t pursue his own interests on the intermittent evening. As if to suggest the “perversity” of his other life, the camera trails after Car as he descends into a dark gay-boys’ club, filled with hard bodies and watchful eyes. It’s the sort of stereotypical bar where you’d expect him to find some rough trade, but the on-and-off-again beau he spots, the photographer Emek (Moritz Bleibtreu), is more meta than literal. He makes his living in a way that’s differently exploitative, as a paparazzo. But his art is something else — photos of blindfolded naked men in poses inspired by news images of torture, alluding to the world ordained by the self-satisfied movers and shakers who make up DC’s upper classes. “I guess,” sighs Car, “if it isn’t offensive, it isn’t art.”
Emek’s work — which he hopes Car will help him get into a gallery — lends The Walker one layer of political commentary. But it’s hardly the film’s only means of criticizing the local ethos, which is targeted by most all of its observers. “This is a mean crowd, this administration,” notes Car, “It’s a culture of revenge.” Or again, as another canasta player (Mary Beth Hurt) sniffs, “It’s a lack of moral values, Iraq blurs everything.” Such context is not unlike that provided in Taxi Driver, in that the outsider finds his way toward the inside less because he seeks inclusion in the club that has rejected him, than because he learns where he stands and will always stand in relation to the insiders whose misery is infinitely more profound than his.
Car has long kept a semblance of order despite disappointments in both realms — by keeping them separate. When Lynn wonders what he does on his off-hours (“You talk about everyone else, but you never talk about yourself”), he smiles, enchantingly. “I’ll let you in on a little secret,” he says. “I’ve invented my own sex.” But Car’s worlds collide when he’s suddenly immersed in a murder case.
It begins like a regular scandal: Car is waiting outside the townhouse where Lynn’s lobbyist lover Robbie (Steven Hartley) lives, awaiting the end of their afternoon’s tryst. When she emerges, tremulously announcing that she’s found Robbie dead (“With a knife!”), the situation looks almost trivial — as such things go in the movies. But it soon breaks open into yawning crevices of corporate and administration corruptions (with name-checks including Dick Cheney), all by way of educating Car in the nefarious and duplicitous sphere of high-stakes politics. The first detective on the scene, the world-weary Dixon (Geff Francis), suspects Car, as does the shifty and mightily ambitious DA Mungo Tenant (William Hope), who cites Car’s father as an inspiration (“When I heard him at the Watergate hearings, I was proud to be a Virginian”) and uses him as a cudgel to remind Car of his professional failures.
While Car bristles at the young man’s measurement, knowing not only that his father was a Washington insider with all the requisite faults and fraudulence. While Car’s affect determinedly contradicts that legacy (“I’m not naïve,” he says, “I’m superficial”), his familiarity with how the inside works leaves him unsurprised when his faux-friends betray him. He also understands how the script ends. “One day,” quips Abigail, “everything is fine, the next day you’re in an episode of Murder, She Wrote.” Except the bad guys win. The best Car can hope for is a timely escape.