An act of transgression under the guise of truth, Alex Cox’s Walker adulterates textual history with spurting blood squibs and proleptic product placement, slaughtering the sacred cows of colonialism’s past with the media tactics of the distant future. Through William Walker and his thuggish Central American wanderlust, Cox unearthed the perfect preamble to U.S. involvement in the Nicaraguan Revolution, parading out every display of brutality as a sardonic analysis of military occupation and an erudite, if faintly smug, excoriation of celebrity.
Revelling in the clash between the sincere and the sarcastic, Cox impregnates mannered performances and ornate parlors with screeching violin and shouted dialogue, mocking the propriety of period filmmaking by drowning it in its own embellishments. Every setpiece is slightly askew, contaminated by contemporary curse words and vivid fits of carnality, transforming the glory of war and grandeur of politics into a mess of strewn corpses and vociferous bluster.
The juxtaposition of this brazen artifice atop genuine moments of tenderness forges a tonal incongruity, accentuating the contrast between the director’s stylistic excesses and the intended progression of the narrative. When viewed in isolation, spirited signing and intimate gesture shared between soldier of fortune William Walker (Ed Harris) and the hearing-impaired Ellen Martin (Marlee Matlin) fosters profound emotion, but seeing these passages interspersed with the overarching product’s stilted political rhetoric and sly spoofery exposes their dubious nature, squandering Martin’s disability as a facet of the film’s endless cavalcade of quirks.
By sacrificing integrity in the name of symbolic innuendo, Cox better serves his obsession with popular culture, repurposing Walker’s sanguinary seizure of Rivas as an exercise in spaghetti-western parody. Through persistent use of extreme close-up and balletic violence, the chaos of battle is transfigured into a surreal soap opera, untethering further from reality with each subsequent double-cross and public execution.
As El Presidente struts through combat unharmed, like a spectre, backed by the disjointed piano and haunting throb of Joe Strummer’s score, Cox forces the chronology of time to fray, inserting modern commodities into antiquated scenarios. The shock of Walker gorging himself on his enemy’s organs and the folly of a silver Mercedes speeding past a horse-drawn carriage function to destroy the languor of the biography, corrupting cinema much like the protagonist corrupted language and politics. By fashioning an absurd presentation to match an equally absurd situation, Alex Cox exposed the barbarity of “Manifest Destiny” by dragging it into the limelight, making a belabored point even less subtle by amplifying it to a deafening volume.
Walker (Universal Pictures, 1987)
Directed by Alex Cox
Written by Rudy Wurlitzer
Photographed by David Bridges