Nearly 30 years ago, Paul Schrader's American Gigolo featured one of the strangest love scenes since Narcissus caught sight of something rather pretty in the water. Richard Gere, playing a self-absorbed Beverly Hills escort, was called upon to arrange a selection of spiffy shirts and ties across his bed while pondering what to wear for the evening. Gere swooned. The camera swooned. It was love. Schrader's latest film, The Walker, has many similarities to the earlier picture: it could even be called American Gigolo: the Autumn Years. Some people might mourn how the Uomo Vogue look of American Gigolo has been replaced by varnished interiors straight out of House and Garden, but not me. Bring on the tallboys and the escritoires, I say. You do miss Blondie's "Call Me" on the soundtrack but, hey, you can't have everything.
The Walker also concerns an escort, Carter Page III (Woody Harrelson), but the duties this gay man performs for the bejewelled and lonely wives of politicians in Washington, DC extend only to accompanying them to operas and functions, and passing round titbits of toxic gossip at the weekly game of canasta. The film features a poignant reprise of that American Gigolo love scene, with some striking differences. When Carter surveys himself at his dressing table, he is no peacock admiring his majestic feathers. Alone at the end of a day full of chatter and glitz, he removes his toupee, exposing a smooth, gleaming pate, and returns the rug to a stand in its own little cupboard. You have to take your hat off - and your toupee, for that matter - to Harrelson. Hollywood stars playing gay characters is one thing. But gay and bald? The guy eats taboos for breakfast.
Carter spends his days bitching and sniping with a witches' coven of clucking companions, played by the formidable trio of Lauren Bacall, Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily Tomlin. He also has a lover, the political artist Emek (Moritz Bleibtreu), but remains unable to commit fully to their relationship. Whether anyone could commit to somebody who toils over such achingly relevant, Abu Ghraib-influenced canvases is a moot point, but this is not the time to ask why fictional artists in films always produce such dreadful work.
The film hinges on the question of whether or not Carter will be able to forsake his air of camp detachment when the occasion demands it. In short, it's yet another story about male fear of commitment, but in dandy's clothing. When a close friend of Carter's, a senator's wife called Lynn Lockner (Scott Thomas), comes to him in a panic because she has found her lover dead, Carter agrees to pretend it was he who discovered the body, thus sparing Lynn the scandal of having her infidelity exposed, but placing himself under suspicion of murder.
The Walker is an affectionate character study, but unfortunately it also wants to be a thriller. The supposedly suspenseful part of the plot amounts to four questions. Will Carter be charged with murder? Did Lynn kill her lover? If she didn't, who did? And will anyone give a hoot when the handling of these points is so perfunctory? In fact, the film is so unconvincing whenever it strays from Carter's social life that I began to wonder if its ineptness was deliberate; perhaps Schrader was commenting on the futility of modern thrillers. But deep down I know that there's the benefit of the doubt, and then there's just stupid.
Still, The Walker does boast Harrelson giving the performance of his career. This might not set your heart aflame with excitement, but watching him here is like discovering that someone you knew as a cartoonist also has an impressive flair for portraiture. Just as Carter is forced to abandon his facade to save his bacon, so Harrelson has broken free of the tics and mannerisms that have endeared him to audiences but restricted him as an actor. He swaps his macho looseness for a waspish drawl and a permanently cocked pinkie, and provides the pulse in a film that is at its most thrilling when it isn't trying to be a thriller.
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