Thursday, May 29, 2008

Why "The Walker" is Worth a Rental

Woody Harrelson and Moritz Bleibtreu in The Walker

There's an unwritten rule moviegoers have been faithfully abiding by for almost 30 years now about not seeing Paul Schrader films. The last time they cared about one was in 1980, when American Gigolo made $22 million in the United States, and at least $15 million of that had less to do with Schrader than Richard Gere's genitals. It's enough to make you wonder if there isn't something about the filmmaker from Grand Rapids, Michigan that puts people off, but then who wouldn't fall in love with a Bresson and Ozu-obsessed former Calvinist who wears big, thick glasses and has a penchant for porn, prostitutes and Blondie music?

The enduring popularity of the movies Schrader wrote for Martin Scorsese, including Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, suggests that the box office failures of Mishima, Light Sleeper, and practically everything else Schrader's name has appeared on, has less to do with indifferent audiences than indifferent distributors. According to Box Office Mojo, his widest release was 1,041 theaters for Light of Day; that was all the way back in 1987, when its star, Michael J. Fox, was enjoying immense popularity due to the success of both Family Ties and Back to the Future. His most recent film, The Walker, played in only 14 theaters, grossing a paltry $79,698 domestically. In the same year, in the same country, Wild Hogs made almost $170 million. A movie about Alvin and the fucking Chipmunks made $217 million. How does that happen? How does something like The Walker, an actual movie with actual ideas (made by an actual filmmaker and starring real actors, no less), make less than Elton John's monthly flower allowance? How does it play on only 14 screens, the fewest of any Schrader movie since 1991's The Comfort of Strangers?

There has to be a logical, or semi-logical, explanation for it. It's not as if The Walker doesn't have serious credentials, between Schrader's involvement and a stellar cast that includes a quintet of Oscar-nominated actors. (Woody Harrelson, Lauren Bacall, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily Tomlin and Ned Beatty, if you're too lazy to IMDB it yourself.) And it's not like the story itself, which is part murder mystery and part political thriller, isn't absorbing enough to hold an audience's attention for an hour and 45 minutes. All of which makes me wonder, was The Walker partially doomed to D.O.A. status because of the gay thing?

Schrader's interest in gay themes extends back to the 1970s (anyone who read Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls must remember what John Milius had to say about that), but The Walker marks the first film he has made that focuses entirely on an openly gay protagonist. That would be Woody Harrelson's titular walker, Carter Page III. The genteel son of a wealthy political family, Carter escorts his female friends, the wives of D.C. power brokers, to galas and has a boyfriend, Emek (played by the German actor Moritz Bleibtreu) on the side. Carter, like many a Schrader character before him, finds himself implicated in a murder he didn't commit all because of the company he keeps. And like his predecessors in Light Sleeper and American Gigolo, he quickly realizes he has few options for clearing his name.

Perhaps significantly, or maybe not, Carter is promptly jettisoned by his heterosexual society friends when a scandal starts to brew. It is Emek, a paparazzo who'd like a deeper commitment from Carter (not to mention some help landing a gallery show -- he's also an artist whose sexually explicit pieces Carter describes as agitprop), who is willing to risk his life to help uncover the truth and keep his lover out of jail. Incidentally, Emek is also the character who poses the question at the movie's crux: "If you don't want to feel used, why are you in a relationship?"

The Walker, which was dedicated to Schrader's brother and sometime co-writer Leonard, is highly polished and thoroughly mainstream, right down to its too-pat ending and heavy-handed overuse of Bryan Ferry's "Which Way to Turn" on the soundtrack. That's what makes Carter's matter-of-fact gayness so interesting -- when is the last time you saw a movie like this with a cast this great and a protagonist whose partner in crime, as well as life, is another man? The Walker is well worth seeing on the strength of Harrelson's gritty performance and excellent supporting turns by Bacall and Bleibtreu alone, but it's also a welcome reminder to weary gay audiences that every now and then, we make it into "regular" American movies as more than comic relief.

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