Paul Schrader's "The Walker" reworks one of his favorite plot tropes: the ne'er-do-well whose soul is purified in the heat of a murder investigation. Even if this isn't Schrader's best, it's hardly his worst, and modestly budgeted pic should break even with limited release in urban burgs, performing marginally better abroad.

Paul Schrader’s “The Walker” reworks one of his favorite plot tropes: the ne’er-do-well whose soul is purified in the heat of a murder investigation. Harrowed hero here is a gay Washington, D.C.-based gadabout (Woody Harrelson) who struggles to shield a friend from scandal. Although script sparkles with twinkly bon mots and cynical quips, pic’s midsection feels a little flabby, as if the writer-helmer were just going through the motions. Still, even if this isn’t Schrader’s best, it’s hardly his worst, and modestly budgeted pic should break even with limited release in urban burgs, performing marginally better abroad.

A scion of the Virginia gentry and the son of a late, highly respected liberal senator who took part in the Watergate hearings (as everyone keeps reminding him), Carter Page III (Harrelson) apparently lives off some kind of inheritance and dabbles in real estate. His real vocation is as a walker, a sort of unpaid escort (most definitely not the sexual kind) for the wives of rich and powerful men, squiring ladies to public events when their husbands aren’t free or inclined to come.

Per press notes, term was originally coined to describe Jerry Zipkin, who “walked” Nancy Reagan and Betsy Bloomingdale among others and, like Carter here, held weekly canasta games at the height of his popularity where he and select femme friends would swap gossip.

Action opens at just such a canasta game in a private D.C. hotel room where Carter entertains his inner circle: grande dame Natalie Van Miter (Lauren Bacall, in great, queenly form), Abigail Delorean (Lily Tomlin, solid as ever) and Lynn Lockner (Kristin Scott Thomas, doing that brittle, haute-bourgeois siren schtick she does so well), all of them wives of either politicians or eminent lobbyists.

As opening shot swirls around room’s tasteful murals, the camera not even showing any faces, dialogue suggests convincingly that although these ladies may spend most of their time lunching, their husbands didn’t marry them for their looks alone. They’re the politically savvy handmaidens of the elite who help stage-manage their husbands’ careers, and Carter is their court jester.

He’s closest to Lynn, whom he even once made a play for way back before coming out of the closet. They’re such old friends now that he acts as lookout and alibi for her when she pays weekly visits to her lover, lobbyist Robbie Kononsberg (Steven Hartley). But one day, she comes back from Robbie’s condo and tells Carter she found her lover stabbed to death. In order to protect Lynn and her senator husband Larry (Willem Dafoe) from impertinent questions, Carter offers to report the crime himself to the police.

When the investigation starts, and ambitious district attorney Mungo Tenant (William Hope) gets involved, Carter is hauled in for grilling. It seems someone has tipped them off already about Lynn’s affair with Robbie, but Carter refuses to waver from his story that he found the body first, even if it makes him a suspect.

It emerges, via gossip at the canasta game, that Robbie was involved with an investment company that is about to be investigated for malfeasance (never quite explained), which would uncover all kinds of dirt about people in Carter’s circle. The only way for Carter to protect Lynn and keep himself out of jail is to turn amateur investigator himself, helped by his loyal German-Turkish lover Emek (Moritz Bleibtreu), a tabloid paparazzo who wants to transition into gallery-based art photography and get Carter to settle down with him.

Plot parallels with Schrader’s “American Gigolo” and “Light Sleeper” are obvious, but helmer also more subtly references his back catalog through James Merifield’s production design, which makes ample use of Venetian blinds (a key noir-homage motif in “Gigolo”). A very “Gigolo”-esque montage lingers fetishistically over the hero’s coiled ties and glinting cufflink collection as he undresses, climaxing with the removal of his wig revealing his bald pate, a brave moment for follicle-challenged star Harrelson that tenderly exposes the character’s hidden, vulnerable self. Elsewhere, cantered camera angles invoke the woozy feel of camerawork in “Cat People” and some of the helmer’s other pics.

Such self-homage is fun for Schrader fans, but what’s missing here is the ambitious innovation, emotional ferocity and spiritual topnotes of the director at his best, on view in “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” and more recently in his underrated minor masterpiece “Auto Focus,” to say nothing of his scripts for Martin Scorsese. Plot’s mystery MacGuffin hinders rather than enhances second act, right when Carter’s world starts to frazzle and his relationship with Emek needs to be more fleshed out (perhaps literally — character’ passion for one another is incarnated in just one long but chaste-looking kiss through a wire fence).

Fortunately, strong ensemble compensates for film’s minor shortcomings. Harrelson finds new ways of making smarm charm, his gestures and gait convincingly suggesting affected camp without slipping into caricature. His signature line, “I’m not naive, I’m superficial,” nails the character beautifully.

Costume designer Nic Ede gets across Carter’s slightly misjudged, Southern-style foppishness through the design of his oddly cut, shade-too-tight double-breasted suits, suggestive of hand-me-downs from Carter Page Sr. that don’t quite fit.

Apart from location work in Washington, D.C., pic was largely shot in Blighty and on the Isle of Man, presumably for budgetary reasons, and it shows in the anonymous interiors that never look quite right as the playgrounds of America’s super-elite. Otherwise, craft contributions are pro without being outstanding.

The Walker

U.S.-U.K.

Production

A Kintop Pictures, Ingenious Film Partners, Asia Pacific Films, Isle of Man Film presentation. (International sales: Pathe, London.) Produced by Deepak Nayer. Executive producers, Willi Baer, Steve Christian, James Clayton, Parseghian Planco, Duncan Reid. Directed, written by Paul Schrader.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Chris Seager; editor, Julian Rodd; music, Anne Dudley; production designer, James Merifield; art director, David Hindle; costume designer, Nic Ede; sound (Dolby Digital), John Hayes; supervising sound editor, Simon Price; re-recording mixer, Richard Lewis; visual effects, the Moving Picture Co.; assistant director, Richard Styles; second unit camera, Dave Insley; casting, Gilly Poole. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (noncompeting), Feb. 12, 2007. Running time: 107 MIN.

With

Carter Page III - Woody Harrelson Lynn Lockner - Kristin Scott Thomas Natalie Van Miter - Lauren Bacall Abigail Delorean - Lily Tomlin Jack Delorean - Ned Beatty Emek Yoglu - Moritz Bleibtreu Larry Lockner - Willem Dafoe Mungo Tenant - William Hope Detective Dixon - Geff Francis Robbie Kononsberg - Steven Hartley Chrissie Morgan - Mary Beth Hurt

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