"In the end, all you have is your breeding. It's all that separates `them' from `us,'" says Natalie Van Miter, rich, aging doyen of Washington high society.
"My great-grandfather got rich off slavery," says languid, gay, agreeable Carter Page III, escort for powerful women in the nation's capital, who is beginning to have second thoughts, thanks to a murder, about his life. "When the Yankees took that away, my grandfather made his money raisin' tobacco. I don't have any breeding."
"If your great-grandfather were alive today, he'd fit right in," says Natalie, with an affectionate squeeze to Carter's arm.
Car (Woody Harrelson), as his lady friends call him, always meets them for weekly Canasta games at an exclusive Washington club. They dish the gossip about everything and everyone, except about themselves. There's Natalie (Lauren Bacall), acerbic with a smile; Abigail Delorean (Lily Tomlin) the vice president's wife and no fool; and Lynn Lockner (Kristin Scott Thomas), unhappy wife of Senator Larry Lockner, the Senate's minority leader. They all adore Car, who dishes with the best of them. And Car adores them. He's a "walker," an unthreatening, well-bred man who takes wealthy women from place to place when their powerful husbands don't want to go.
Car even escorts Lynn Lockner to her secret weekly assignations with a lover, waiting in the car for her to return an hour or so later. This time, however, Lynn returns in minutes. She found her lover, a financial wheeler-dealer who had been scheduled to testify before a Senate committee, sprawled dead in the man's living room, stab wounds in his chest and, well, lower down. Car decides to protect Lynn, one of his favorite ladies, so he drives her home, returns and then calls the police and says he just found the body.
Carter Page is a man who has lived his life carefully. "I'm not naïve," he says at one point, "I'm superficial." He's never been willing to fully commit to his boyfriend. He uses soft-spoken wit to deflect anything too serious. "How come you're always so polite?" asks Lynn at one point. "It was my mother's answer to chaos and now it's mine," he tells her. He loves being a friend to his powerful, witty, sharply amusing ladies. Before long he's going to find himself the chief suspect in the murder, a target of an obnoxious prosecutor who is delighted to nail Carter with the crime. His boyfriend gets beaten up. Ruthless, political maneuvering in high places leaves him exposed to the elements. In some ways most hurtful, he realizes that his ladies, while still gracious, aren't inclined to play Canasta anymore with him. Even Lynn now is nowhere to be found. "Let me give you a piece of Washington wisdom," Natalie Van Miter tells him. "Never stand between a friend and a firing squad."
The Walker, for the first two-thirds, is a brittle, amusing satire of Washington society and the self-interest that makes it work. The last third, for me, slows down a bit because Paul Schrader, the director, begins to take his view of Washington politics too seriously. There are cracks about the current administration that are a bit old hat. The murderous intent to win at the political game turns from wit to something a little like melodrama. Still, The Walker for the most part is clever, with an unexpected performance by Woody Harrelson as the languid, gay Carter Page III, with a soft Southern accent and a wonderful wig. A couple of critics have said Harrelson was miscast. I don't think so. It just takes a few minutes to accept Harrelson, usually cast as grinning psychos or mentally deficient cowboys, as a tall, good-looking Truman Capote. Carter Page and his predicament with his ladies brings back memories of Capote thinking he was best pals with New York high society queens Babe Paley and Slim Keith, only to be cut dead by them when he dared to print the real dish. Capote proved to be both naïve and superficial (except when it came to his writing). So does Carter Page III until he starts putting the pieces together.
Lauren Bacall, Lily Tomlin and Kristin Scott Thomas are marvelous as Carter's realistic, witty, self-involved friends. They know the real dish; so does Carter; and they delight in sharing with each other. In fact, the movie has a number of first-rate actors, including Willem Dafoe, underused but effective as Lynn Lockner's ambitious husband, Moritz Bleibtreu as Carter's boyfriend and, particularly, Ned Beatty as Vice President Jack Delorean, a smiling, aging politician who is fully prepared to do whatever it takes to gain the advantage over anyone he thinks isn't American enough.
To see Kristen Scott Thomas at her coolest and most determined, watch that singular movie of entomology and incest, Angels & Insects. Lily Tomlin, in my view, is an extraordinary actor, able to combine tart, skeptical intelligence with unexpected warmth. Two of her earlier movies I like a lot are The Late Show and All of Me.