The Criterion Corner


Walker

Director: Alex Cox

Year of release: 1987

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes

Welcome to THE CRITERION CORNER, a recurring segment in which a film in The Criterion Collection, known for standardizing the letterbox format for widescreen movies and extra bonus features, is highlighted. The picture up for discussion this time is Alex Cox's 1987 misunderstood absurdist satire Walker.


British filmmaker Alex Cox's anarchic satire about William Walker (Ed Harris), a man who led the first American invasion of Nicaragua, feels more prescient today than it probably did upon it's 1987 release. Because our current political climate is so divisive, it's tempting to read Walker through a modernist lens, but let's not forget Cox made the picture right in the middle of the illegal U.S.-sponsored war against Nicaragua. This is all to say that history is stubbornly cyclical, something Cox is keenly aware of as he gleefully skewers American expansion and colonialism throughout. There's no need to apply topicality here because, sadly, not much has changed.

From the outset, it's clear the film is going for a freewheeling comic quality while simultaneously getting at how power and international politics mix to form Westernized ignorance of other cultures. For example, an opening 19th-century battle sequence in Sonora, Mexico where soldiers and peasants are blown to bits by gunfire and cannon blasts is both unflinchingly violent as well as ridiculously farcical, complete with a rousing salsa soundtrack from Joe Strummer.  As Walker strides through the streets with optimistic swagger immune to the carnage and misery all around him, the stage is set for an atypical, and often uproariously hilarious, take on the biopic.

With his 1984 punk classic Repo Man, Cox responded to the capitalistic mindset of the 1980s by satirizing American slacker culture, whereas here, he essentially gives us an inverse of that film's theme of anti-conformity. Walker is a dark, blistering take down of the antihero model set in a world populated by a charismatic leader whose soul is an empty void swallowing up everyone and everything in its path. Played by Ed Harris in a towering, heightened performance, Walker is an anomaly who exists to spew anti-slavery and pro-democracy rhetoric as a mask for overpowering a foreign country. Claiming to work for God and hiding behind Christian sanctimony, he emerges as a figure of duplicitous evil which perfectly encapsulates American arrogance.

During widescreen battle scenes which Cox stages with a sense of breathtaking scope, Walker continues to march onward (even as his most "trusted" soldiers die at his side), giving the fiery destruction happening all around him a carnivalesque absurdity. Harris doubles down on the tics and mannerisms here; giving the central character a twitchy intensity which speaks to the frightening power of unchecked hubris. What emerges is a film which rips open the festering wound of American history and lets the entrails flow down into rivers of gushing blood. It's a piece of work that could be seen only as farce, if the truth wasn't so bewildering to begin with.

Cox understands, more than perhaps an American filmmaker, that historical revisionism speaks to larger truths that are much to painful to reckon with. The film's litany of anachronisms--automatic rifles, helicopters, vehicles, etc--aren't merely there as a way of poking fun at conventions, but are instead a way for Cox to wrestle with the ways in which we distort history to fit into our preconceived ideals. For all it's zany lunacy, Walker is a film that is deadly serious about it's political convictions; making it a powerful and welcome addition to The Criterion Collection