We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Paul Schrader has been to D.C. I can prove it: In 2002, he did interviews here to promote his film Auto Focus, and a photograph of him at the Georgetown Four Seasons was published in these pages. But the wildly erratic writer-director must not have learned much on that visit, because his new film could be the work of someone who’s never come any closer to town than Trenton. Supposedly a parable of contemporary Washington corruption, The Walker feels like a story from—to invoke an album by the soundtrack’s resident crooner, Bryan Ferry—another time, another place. The movie is one of the loner-in-crisis character studies that’s been a Schrader speciality since his script for Taxi Driver. This time around, he’s outfitted with legitimate if shallow anti-Dubya resentment and drawing-room banter that fails to sparkle as intended.

The blather begins with a chorus of unseen voices, one of which offers the ultimate D.C. putdown: “This is Washington, after all.” But it isn’t. Shot largely on the Isle of Man, The Walker tries to deploy timely references to the venality of the current administration: “a mean bunch,” laments putative raconteur Carter “Car” Page III. Yet the characters seem to stroll out of the ’70s, if not earlier, and the premise is equally musty: Underemployed and openly gay Car (Woody Harrelson), a senator’s son, takes the rap for one of his platonic woman friends, Lynn Lockner (Kristin Scott Thomas), a senator’s wife. After the murder of Lynn’s secret lover, a financier who gave Car a bad investment tip, bulldog District Attorney Mungo Tenant (William Hope) tries to nail the innocent bystander for the crime because, well, the prosecutor is part of that mean bunch.

The foppish Car proudly professes to be “superficial,” though he dips into Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars when he’s not socializing. He’s also a stalwart Southern gentleman, complete with a Virginia accent that’s actually closer to Mississippi. Car retains his loyalty to the bored pols’ wives he regularly joins for gossip and canasta—among them Natalie Van Miter (Lauren Bacall) and Abigail Delorean (Lily Tomlin)—even after they begin to snub him. Aside from his patrician attorney, Car’s only support comes from his sometime lover, Emek Yoglu (Run Lola Run’s Moritz Bleibtreu), a Turko-German photographer who’s about to wallop Bush and Cheney with a gallery show of images inspired by Abu Ghraib. Schrader’s idea of what will wound the Bushies is almost as quaint as his vision of a D.C. gay bar, which looks like an interior from 1980’s shadowy Cruising.

The ’80s were the decade of the Reagans, and Car (as well as the term “walker”) is derived from Jerry Zipkin, one of Nancy’s frequent escorts. But her circle was a retro (and Californian) scene even then, and has little to do with today’s federal Washington. Now the house speaker and a leading Democratic presidential contender are women, and politicians’ wives—as the Abramoff scandal revealed—are more likely to be influence peddlers than canasta players. Emek absurdly pairs D.C. with Salt Lake City as “the last two American cities where homosexuality is grounds for extortion,” but what’s really behind the times is Schrader’s understanding of the town.

The director clearly intends The Walker to be a companion piece to his American Gigolo and Light Sleeper. He restages scenes from both movies: the former’s rapturous tour of its protagonist’s wardrobe, the latter’s restless night of the semi-­insomniac soul. Both films were inspired by Robert Bresson’s transcendent and taciturn Pickpocket, and perhaps this one was, too. There’s nothing Bressonian, however, about The Walker’s stilted chatter. The script struggles to combine Wildean wit with contemporary vernacular and anti-administration commentary, yet the resulting dialogue relies heavily on the surprise of hearing the venerable Bacall utter words like “penis” and “shit.” That might shock Salt Lake City, but it won’t ruffle black-hearted Washington.