Criterion Review: WALKER

A surreal and perturbing biopic, with a distinct directorial approach, and a captivating performance from Ed Harris

Synopsis: A hallucinatory biopic that breaks all cinematic conventions, Walker, from British director Alex Cox, tells the story of nineteenth-century American adventurer William Walker (Ed Harris), who abandoned a series of careers in law, politics, journalism, and medicine to become a soldier of fortune and, for many months, the dictator of Nicaragua. Made with mad abandon and political acuity — and the support of the Sandinista army and government during the contra war — the film uses this true tale as a satirical attack on American ultra-patriotism and a freewheeling condemnation of “manifest destiny.” Featuring a powerful score by Joe Strummer and a performance of intense, repressed rage by Harris, Walker remains one of Cox’s most daring works.

Walker opens with a bang. An explosive revolution consuming 19th-century Sonora, Mexico. As the horrors onscreen unfold, you get the first inkling that there is something different in store beyond grit and blood. A salsa twang added to the score is the first of many tonal flips that strew the production, tilting something inherently grim, into something mesmerizingly cartoonish at times. Striding through this hellish battle is the American William Walker (Ed Harris), a physician/lawyer/writer, now turned mercenary. The man responsible for leading the first American invasion of Nicaragua, tasked with establishing slave-hold colonies in the region. This biopic chronicles the rise and fall of Walker, his victories and defeats, charity and misdeeds. A man justifying his more nefarious acts and commands in the name of God, or science, and driven by a belief in his own righteousness, and indeed that of the United States of America.

It’s this latter component that the film explores in a rather heavy handed, but undeniably effective manner. A critique of America’s foreign policy, where power and politics meanders into imperialism. While set in the 19th century, Walker firmly castigates more recent diplomatic and militaristic acts: sponsoring wars, supporting the overthrowing of leaders, or getting dirty hands through direct intervention. It takes aim at the money and men who helped elevate figures like Walker to serve their needs, and the aftermath, where death and destruction leave a lasting imprint left on a culture.

Working from a script by Rudy Wurlitzer (Two Lane Blacktop), director Alex Cox (Repo Man) delivered a film led by instinct and emotion. A dive into the dark, neurotic impulses of this man, and the acts he perpetuated. Wild camera movements, scenes that feel like they have gone off script, tonal shifts, and cartoonish elements added by the various characters, including the lead. Harris is immense in the central role, as an egotistical control freak who has supped way too much of his own kool-aid. A walking, talking contradiction, who espouses American values of freedom while enslaving part of the populace of Nicaragua. He adds a real edge, with a distinct tone, style and delivery, along with an unnerving kind of optimism that he is in the right. Harris really embraces the chaos of the piece, and ramps up the intensity accordingly.

The Package

Criterion offers up an all new digital transfer, sourced from a 35mm interpositive, and approved by director Alex Cox. Blacks are deep, flesh tones lifelike, and grain levels well-maintained. The LPCM mono track is crisp and clear, delivering the antic gunplay and other ambient effects front and center, and well serving Joe Strummer’s often incongruous score. Overall the film has a natural presentation, with colors well balanced, and natural grain. Blacks are good, with some of the darker scenes losing a little definition, this aside, the detail and depth of image impress. Extra features offer plenty to the package, as well as notable perspective on Cox himself:

  • Audio commentary by Cox and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer: Probably worth the price of purchase alone, as the pair really dive into the history behind the film, their knowledge of Walker himself, experiences on set, themes and ties to the Iran-Contra Affair, and the reception of the film
  • Dispatches from Nicaragua, a documentary about the filming of Walker: Just short of an hour and a pretty insightful (and entertaining) doc. about the on location shooting of the film. Beyond this, it also frames the film against the context of the Contra wars of the 70s/80s
  • On Moviemaking and the Revolution, reminiscences from an extra on the film: An extra on the film shares some frank tales from the shoot, and about his career in Hollywood
  • Walker 2008 and On the Origins of “Walker” (2016), two short films by Cox: In the first, Cox gives an overview of his vision for Walker, before going on to reading out some of the harsher reviews the film received upon release. The second, and slightly longer piece, is about the launch of the project and planning the film, with Cox and some additional contributions from screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer
  • Behind-the-scenes photos and Trailer:
  • PLUS: Essays by film critic Graham Fuller, actor and author Linda Sandoval, and Wurlitzer: Housed in the included liner booklet, which also contains details on the restoration/new transfer
  • Blu-ray cover by Paul Mavrides (pictured); DVD cover by Marc English

The Bottom Line

Walker is more a curio than a classic. Some may find the swings in tone and blunt force messaging to be a bit too much, but most will appreciate Cox’s efforts to take what could have been a run of the mill biopic, and inject it with more satirical, and certainly memorable edge. Harris’ performance is also a standout. Criterion’s treatment does much to elevate things. Beyond a superb transfer, with extra features that add historical and political context, as well as insight to the director’s process.

Alex Cox’s Walker is available via Criterion now

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