ften we watch a Hou Hsiao-hsien film as if it was Jerry Bruckheimer product. Maybe The Wedding Crashers has more in common with Preston Sturges than audiences thought. Thanks to the relative ease with which the modern consumer can attain a restored older film or once out-of-print foreign film, A Second Take allows a writer to describe why a film was overrated or overlooked the first time. We do not expect our readers to agree, which is precisely the point: consensus occludes independent thinking.
When Alex Cox’s Walker was released in 1987, I’m sure the filmgoing public could practically hear the biggest critics of the day sharpening their knives. As Coppola, Cimino, and countless others could attest, critics tend to save their most pointed barbs for those rare films that carry the twin stenches of ambition and failure. Very few films of the time aimed quite as high as Cox’s freewheeling assault on the notion of Manifest Destiny, and very few tastemakers gave the film any quarter. Even today, almost twenty years after the fact, the critical consensus is that it’s too crude, too chaotic, too juvenile to merit a first look, let alone a second.
Of course, since the film is about William Walker, the American mercenary who invaded Nicaragua in 1855, and since it was made at the height of the notorious civil war in the same country, it’d be easy to lay the blame for its drubbing on base, knee-jerk jingoism. It’d be lazy, too—throughout the 80s, films like Under Fire and Salvador dealt with Central America, and were met with unanimous acclaim. The fact is, the critics were right. Cox’s screed is very crude, is very chaotic, and is very juvenile.
That’s why it’s so very good.
If that sounds like a contradiction, well, Walker is a contradictory movie. Film is such a collaborative medium, made up of the interplay between so many different artists, that the more people learn about it, the more they think of it in almost symphonic terms. The imagery, the performances, the dialogue become instruments, and a film is judged by the skill, the subtlety and the grace with which they play off each other, like the violins in a Brahms concerto or the guitars in a Pink Floyd album.
By all accounts, Alex Cox is no Brahms, and he’s definitely no Roger Waters. He’s a dirty, abrasive punk, and his films are not symphonies; they’re collections of singles, stretched out to epic length and held together less by technical skill than by sheer, sloppy fervor. He may only hit two or three chords, but he hits them damn well.
After all, what better subject is there for an angry young punk than William Walker, a man who marched into Nicaragua with an army of pirates and thugs and made himself President? With that in mind, anybody expecting a fair, balanced historical assessment will be sorely disappointed—given such a potent symbol of imperialistic greed, Cox may well have shot the film in a constant state of engorgement. He comes not to praise Walker, but to ejaculate on his grave.
Most films steadily build to a few major crescendos, but Cox is greedy; he attempts to make a film that’s all soaring, anthemic hooks by slashing the interludes between them. Big scenes and bravura moments are hurled at us, one after another: The film opens with a manic, leering account of Walker’s abortive attempt to annex a part of Mexico and then, BANG, we’re watching his pirates try to set sail for Nicaragua in a hellish thunderstorm that recalls Bosch and then, BANG, Walker’s strolling through a battlefield while his men curse him with their dying breaths.
Of course, without the safety net that the usual tissue provides, some scenes fall flat; and since Cox is aiming so high, they fall far, too. But every time we think the film’s run out of steam, that the director has fallen off his tightrope, another arresting image flies past like a bullet and another great scene explodes in front of us. A more conventional film could have included Cox’s highs, but they would be weighed down by nuance, reduced to a mere handful of notes in a larger composition. In this supremely anarchistic narrative, the crescendos rise out of nowhere, and that element of surprise lends them the force of a blunt object, the raw power of truly great filmmaking.
As the titular conqueror, Ed Harris doesn’t attempt the kind of nuanced characterization we’ve been trained to expect from great actors. There’s almost no variation in his performance, and absolutely no effort to give an impression of Walker’s inner life—he plays every scene with a stiff, Puritan spine and an opaque, faintly idealistic gaze that could sell both freedom and slavery without so much as a twitch. Forget two or three chords: Harris is content to gouge away at one.
And he would have gouged a more conventional film to shreds—the lead character wouldn’t have progressed with the film, and it would fall to pieces. So, it’s a good thing Cox doesn’t ask him to play a character at all. He asks him to rely on his blank, Midwestern drawl and upright charisma so exclusively that his Walker becomes a pure, unadulterated icon. The Walker of Cox’s conception and Harris’ execution is John Glenn as serial killer, the ultimate rogue colonist, the perfect American.
Harris carries the film whenever it threatens to collapse, like a great guitarist holding utter musical chaos back with an electrifying, pounding riff. Of course, the critics of the time didn’t see it that way, and one of the best performances of his career was checked off as another flaw in a hopeless movie. Like I said, they weren’t wrong: Walker is hopelessly and brilliantly flawed. It’s the visual equivalent of a bootlegged Dead Kennedys album; it’s the antidote to dense, bloated, pretentious “art”; it’s the most punk movie ever made.
By: Chris Anderson
Published on: 2006-11-29