“The Walker” tries to thrill its viewers with a seamy tale of Washington shallowness while simultaneously discussing the deeper psychological life of its main character, but in the end it fails in both endeavors.
The Walker, played by Woody Harrelson, is a gay man named Carter Page III who makes his living escorting rich Washington women around and gossiping with them about people and politics. The women — played by the formidable trio of Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily Tomlin and Lauren Bacall — bring Car (for short) to the opera and take him to pick out carpeting, perhaps the least grueling line of work a man could dream of and also not particularly interesting to watch.
But thankfully, Carter’s life quickly becomes much more complicated after he drops off one woman (Thomas) at the house of her lover, Robbie Kononsberg. To Carter’s shock, she emerges minutes later in tears and announces that Kononsberg has been killed. In the process of protecting her from any involvement in the murder case, Carter ends up becoming the chief suspect. While maintaining a thin defense of lies against a D.A. who is out to get him, he attempts some investigative work to find out who is really behind the murder.
This investigation, besides putting his own career and safety in jeopardy, begins to destroy the already unstable relationship with his German-Turkish lover Emek Yoglu (Moritz Bleibtreu). Carter’s discomfort with the relationship apparently stems from his unresolved feelings about his late father, a successful but corrupt politician who was ashamed of his gay and politically uninvolved son. In response, Carter alienates his lover by snubbing his help in solving the case.
The shame specifically associated with being gay in the world of politics ought to be an interesting concept to work with, but in the end the scenes between Harrelson and Bleibtreu ring hollow. There is little chemistry between them — indeed, given their many disagreements, it is difficult to imagine why the two characters are still together. And let’s be honest, the my-father-was-ashamed-of-me trope is nothing new. Furthermore, the movie makes the irritating choice of portraying Bleibtreu as stereotypically avant-garde, a photographer who creates politicized homoerotic art that Carter calls “agitprop.” Though Bleibtreu’s career provides some contrast with the drawing room life of the political wives, it feels trite and not particularly believable.
Unfortunately, the problem of rehashing old lines about potentially interesting topics extends to the rest of the film, as the murder mystery doesn’t bring anything fresh to the table either. We feel bad for Carter, sticking his neck out for his friend in an atmosphere that promotes a philosophy of every-man-for-himself, but beyond that we don’t care much about the particulars — the motives probably have to do with money or power, we get it, let’s not dwell on it. Carter’s likability as a character stems from his capacity to go beyond Washington’s pettiness when necessary, so the movie’s focus on the superficial details surrounding the scandal holds little appeal.
The more personal details, however, go a long way toward salvaging this movie. When Carter returns to the murder scene to call the police, he finds Kononsberg’s cat, Lancelot, walking around his living room. The cat, eventually adopted by Carter, is unimportant in the grand scheme but serves as a quietly powerful reminder of the reality of Kononsberg’s death and the unfinished business left behind. And a brief scene at the beginning of the movie in which Carter removes his toupee is another gesture that, though seemingly small, establishes early on the theme of superficiality’s constant reign in Washington.
Though the details give life to the film, and the broader ideas about homosexuality and superficiality it addresses are interesting, it doesn’t go anywhere. In failing to realize its potential, “The Walker” takes a few steps and then seems to sit back down again.