At first, The Walker feels like yet another movie about Truman Capote. Once again a charming, flamboyantly gay, middle-aged man uses his thick Southern drawl to trade catty gossip with a circle of rich straight women. Woody Harrelson is not playing Capote, however, but rather the fictional Carter "Car" Page III, the son of a deceased Sam Erwin-like senator. The rich women are not New York culture vultures but the wives of important Washington political figures, so the gossip includes congressional investigations as well as the usual adultery and betrayal.
And murder. Car is a "walker," D.C. jargon for a single man who accompanies wives to cultural and social events when their husbands are too busy or uninterested; he transforms that access into a real-estate career that keeps him in a fabulous art-deco apartment. Car "walks" Lynn Lockner (Kristin Scott Thomas), the wife of a Democratic senator, from their Wednesday canasta game to her assignation with Robbie Kononsberg (Steven Hartley), a high-powered lobbyist. Before long she's back in the car, babbling that Robbie is dead from multiple knife wounds.
Car is determined to be loyal to his friend and denies any knowledge of the murder, but he soon learns that loyalty between the rich and the rest of the world is always a one-way street. Suddenly, a D.C. detective and a federal prosecutor are grilling him, and he can't get Lynn or their canasta partner Abigail Delorean (Lily Tomlin) on the phone. The only person who stands by him is his boyfriend, Emek Yoglu (Moritz Bleibtreu), an artist who turns Abu Ghraib prison photos into giant gallery objects. Writer/director Paul Schrader never mentions the Bush administration, but Emek's photos, the TV news in the background, and the generally oppressive political climate make it clear when the movie is set.
Schrader has admitted in interviews that Car is an older, gay version of the character Richard Gere played in the director's 1980 American Gigolo. The Walker is a much better movie, though, and not only because Harrelson is a much better actor than Gere. Schrader is a much better director than he was then; he's less likely to knock us over the head with over-the-top violence and clumsy moralizing. Nor does he impose an implausible happy ending--every moment in the The Walker rings true to human nature.
Harrelson is never asked to give a Hollywood speech about how "the rich are different from you and me"; instead he expresses it nonverbally. He shows up for the weekly canasta game in the middle of the murder investigation and discovers that his supposed friends have stood him up. Confronted by the empty chairs, his face suffers a series of tiny flinches that reflect the battle between his old assumptions and the new evidence. It's a terrific bit of acting, and it's typical of the newfound subtlety that Schrader brings to this project.