Like most folks who enjoy the art of screenwriting, I'm a pretty big Paul Schrader fan. So when I heard that the writer / director's latest film would be playing at the Toronto Film Festival, I drew a big, red circle around the title. "You know what it's about, don't you?" a friend of mine asked me, to which I responded "Kinda. Woody Harrelson plays a gay D.C. socialite who covers up a murder and lives to regret it, or something like that." OK, good point: Doesn't exactly sound like my cup of tea, plot-wise -- but hey, it's Paul Schrader.

I just figure after Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ and the highly-underrated Light Sleeper, Mr. Schrader has earned the benefit of the doubt. And yes, that's taking into account his last few screenplays. But it turns out my friend was right: The Walker is about a gay rich guy who lives off his family's money and acts as a friend / companion / alibi to many of Washington D.C.'s most important housewives. Carter Page plays canasta with swanky gals played by Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily Tomlin and Lauren Bacall -- and they all seem to love their amusingly non-threatening companion. But when one of the ladies' lovers ends up dead, Carter starts lying to the police to protect his "friends" and quickly discovers his true place in the beltway hierarchy.

Seems like an odd place to find a writer like the streetwise Schrader, but those who've followed the filmmaker's career will find lots of familiar themes in The Walker. Ultimately, Page becomes a cast-off, a social pariah who must dig through a patently familiar film noir construct to get some answers. So while The Walker might not necessarily "work" as a crime thriller or a pulpy 'whodunnit' -- it does turn out to be an unexpectedly candid character study that features a supremely solid cast of characters.

Woody Harrelson's accent takes just a little getting used to, but the guy delivers a fantastic performance here. Page starts off like a buffoon and gradually becomes more human as the walls fall down around him. Bacall, Tomlin and Thomas make for a deliciously two-faced collection of ladies, and some colorful support is provided by the likes of Mary Beth Hurt, Willem Dafoe and Moritz Bleibtreu. Plus, ladies and gentlemen, we have another Ned Beatty alert! (I'm sorry, but any movie is made instantly better by the inclusion of some Ned Beatty. He's like the ketchup of character actors.)

Ultimately, if you're looking for that harsh, dark and wonderfully gritty side of Paul Schrader, my advice is to stick with your DVD collection. But if you'd like to see many of the author's old themes and ideas, only transplanted into the fake and facile world of upper-crust D.C. utopia, The Walker should make for a rather interesting diversion. Clearly not among the director's best work, but certainly worthy of a look nonetheless.