'The Walker' features Woody Harrelson as the eponymous anti-hero in another of writer-director Paul Schrader's studies of ostracised men. Although the dandyish Carter Page III (Harrelson) is, in many ways, very different from Travis Bickle or Jake La Motta, he is still a lone man, alienated from the society to which he should belong.

Carter, the son of a distinguished Virginian politician, is a gay 'walker', who safely escorts politicians' wives to social events in Washington DC. His life revolves around witty gossip and canasta with a trio of pampered but neglected society ladies who are married to powerful men - Lynn Lockner (Scott Thomas), Abigail Delorean (Tomlin) and queenly grand dame Natalie Van Miter (an exceptionally well preserved Bacall).

One day, going above and beyond the call of duty, he delivers Lynn to an assignation with her lover who, it turns out, has just been murdered. Taking the idea of a Southern gentleman to heart a little more than is healthy, Carter conspires to keep her relationship out of the investigation - only to find himself thrown to the wolves. Before long his photographer boyfriend Emek (Bleibtreu) gets caught up in the suspicions, threats and extortion as Carter's intimates, one by one, coolly cut him out of their lives.

In Schrader's intimate portrayal of the gossipy and backbiting world of Washington, where politics is tied up with everything, no one is who they initially seem on the surface. Carter, a little late maturing than most, is one of the last to see the essential shallowness of his world - and that of most of his friendships. Harrelson gives a solid performance in an unsympathetic role, at first all buck-toothed Southern drawl and Capote-style affected mannerisms but, when cornered, quick to show that he is no patsy. Adding a high class layer of icy politesse and cut glass finesse to proceedings, Lily Tomlin, Kristin Scott Thomas and, most especially, Lauren Bacall, excel.

The elaborate mise-en-scène - Carter's lavish apartment, the hotel where he holds his weekly canasta game, the ladies' tastefully expensive outfits - make a very staged platform for the action, a kind of 'Murder, He Wrote' atmosphere, which sits uncomfortably with Carter's sporadic ventures into reality.

With pacing difficulties - the mid-part of the film seems to be going through the motions rather than moving towards a destination - and budgetary constraints (interiors shot in the Isle of Man don't quite make the grade), this is not quite up to the standard of previous Schrader outings. Nevertheless, 'The Walker' is a watchable, if ambiguous, coming-of-age political murder-mystery.

Caroline Hennessy