Director/Screenwriter: Paul Schrader
By Marilyn Ferdinand
One of my favorite movies of all time is Terence Davies’ The House of Mirth (2000). This film, based on the wonderful Edith Wharton novel of the same name, shows the depths to which one can fall in American high society by being even slightly out of sync with the prevailing mood and manners of the day. The best way to remain in everyone’s good graces, therefore, is to be as superficial as possible so as not to betray an incorrect emotion or thought. The protagonist of The House of Mirth, Lily Bart, is ruined by seeming to criticize a powerful society doyen and then refusing to expose an indiscretion of someone she loves to save her own skin. It seems strange in this day and age of social voyeurism and self-exposure that anything as quaint as the notion of scandal could truly ruin a person’s life, but as The Walker illustrates, power at many levels is all about who is willing or unwilling to be seen with you.
The Walker focuses on an ethical dilemma faced by insider/outsider Carter Page III (Woody Harrelson), an impeccably turned-out, discreet homosexual from a good Virginia family whose fortune was made in tobacco. Carr, as he is known, works one day a week at a realtor to the rich and mighty and spends the rest of his time socializing with several society matrons, escorting (“walking”) them to functions their husbands would rather not or cannot attend, helping them redecorate their homes, and gossiping with them at a weekly game of canasta at their exclusive club. The film opens with Carr entertaining Natalie Van Miter (Lauren Bacall), Abby Delorean (Lily Tomlin), and Lynn Lochner (Kristin Scott Thomas) at the canasta table with the gossip of the day and joining in their conspiratorial delight in knowing that others fear what they say and panic when one of the group is seen whispering to another.
Lynn and Carr are especially close, sharing progressive political viewpoints and an odd sort of love—Carr once asked Lynn out before she was married (“the 70s were a confusing time” says Carr). His loyalty is tested when he drives her to the home of her lover, a lobbyist who has given him bad investment advice, and she returns to the car almost immediately and tells him that her lover is dead—murdered. She doesn’t want their affair to become public—it will mean her husband’s political ruin, and, she says, kill her. Carr sees her home and then returns to the scene of the crime, carefully observing the scene and wiping the door knob clean of Lynn’s prints. A neighbor sees him leaving. He is forced to sit down on the steps and phone the police.
Carr’s situation starts to strangle him bit by bit, as an overzealous FBI investigator (William Hope) decides to become a star ripe for promotion by burying one of his social betters. Lynn disappears, supposedly to tend to her sick mother, and Abby declines a luncheon invitation from Carr. “That is the sound of all the doors in Washington closing,” Carr muses to himself. Carr’s on-again/off-again lover Emek (Moritz Bleibtreu), a photographer who creates lurid photos of naked men in Abu Ghraib torture poses, starts investigating the affairs of the murdered man. He and Carr are threatened and attacked, but in the end, the only thing destroyed is Carr’s comfortable berth in Washington society.
One would expect nothing less than a well-written script from Paul Schrader, and he delivers a very literate one indeed, one that forms, as Schrader says himself, a companion piece to his American Gigolo. He is grappling with some provocative ideas as well. For example, as the film unspools, it’s clear that the women relish their social power because, in fact, they are basically inconsequential in the lives of their rich and powerful husbands. Lynn says that she wanted a bit of happiness with her lover because the men don’t need them: “They fuck each other.” That is a swipe at the hypocrisy of Washington, DC, and its closeted gay men. Lynn’s husband (Willem Dafoe) confirms her view (or at least confirms their relationship) to Carr, who continues to shield her: “Lynn inflates her importance in the larger scheme of things.” From the look on his face, he really seems to mean it.
So why is this film so unsatisfying? I think the problem lies mainly in choosing to introduce a scandal that crosses from the private to the political. Comparisons are made constantly of Carr, an apolitical social creature, with his father, a senator who helped bring down Nixon during the Watergate scandal. By bringing in an informal investigation conducted mainly by Carr’s dark-haired lover, but also by the blonde-wigged Carr, the parallels The Walker perhaps unintentionally evoke are to All the President’s Men. The dirty politics of this dirty era get a clothesline airing, but the real story is Carr’s fall from society’s grace. Schrader’s polemical script doesn’t drill into the heart of that story; it doesn’t even sound like real people, not even cultured and educated people. Schrader’s focus is all over the place.
Worse, perhaps, by creating a social milieu composed entirely of people who live their lives so superficially that they can’t even explain their own actions to themselves, Schrader creates an emotionally vacuous story. All of the actors in the film are capable of depth, but Schrader directs them only as deep as the first circle of Hell. We can’t believe that any of them, perhaps with the exception of Emek, yearn for more, not even Lynn, who says she wants what every woman wants—love, family, home—and then rifles through her dead lover’s pockets to find an incriminating picture he might have had on him, a creaky plot device at best and a cynical repudiation of her declarations of love for him.
In this film, the one person who most understands this crowd is the art director, David Hindle. Why are these people the way they are? What do they want? What motivates them? Look around. The lavish, exquisitely tasteful interiors, the priceless art and artifacts, the gilt-dripped crystal goblets and Louis Quatorze office furniture—these are what make this world turn. These riches are the heartbeat underneath nearly every scene in this film and the only things that give the film life. Don’t listen to Bacall’s character when she says that marrying money is hard work because you can only look at it, you can’t touch it. She sits comfortably in her fourth row center seat at the opera and holds her lead-crystal old-fashioned glass steadily enough. She’s long, long past needing the touch of anyone. Ned Beatty, who plays Lily Tomlin’s industrialist husband, is being disingenuous when he says people only want a story, a good American story, they can believe in. What he really believes people want is what he wants—money, and lots of it.
Schrader, unfortunately, doesn’t really know this world. He wasn’t able to bring it to life in his screenplay or his direction. I admire his attempt to reach past his rough-and-tumble masterworks under Martin Scorsese, and The Walker does hold some interest. But in the end, it’s a lot less than the sum of its parts.