Carter Page III plays canasta with the grande dames of Washington, D.C., but no one truly puts their cards on the table. As they joke and gossip, they're gathering intelligence with a dedication that would impress the CIA. Car, the gay black sheep of a venerable political family, looks after the capital's leading ladies, shares their confidences and keeps their secrets.

His discretion is tested when his closest friend, Lynn Lockner (Kristin Scott Thomas), stumbles across a murder that could destroy her reputation and her husband's Senate career. Car suppresses evidence, becoming a suspect in the killing and exposing himself to a taint of scandal that cuts him off from his well-connected former friends.

Written and directed with elegant finesse by Paul Schrader (screenwriter of "Taxi Driver" and "American Gigolo"), the film is a character study wrapped in a story of political and corporate misconduct. Woody Harrelson, not an actor many people would think of to play an elegant man-about-town, gives Car unexpected sophistication and vulnerability. A scene that echoes Richard Gere's dress-up scene in "Gigolo" shows Harrelson lovingly putting aside his handsomely tailored clothes, facing a mirror and removing his convincing wig.

His melancholy stare tells us volumes about the character's dignity, vanity and regrets. Car is on his own despite invitations from his boyfriend to settle down; he doesn't want to become a colorful tourist attraction on display at the playground. He's more comfortable in a dimly lit gay bar or in the social spotlight than in broad daylight. Like most of Schrader's protagonists, he's a lonely outsider uncertain whether he wants to be accepted by the society that excludes him.

The murder plot is the most commercial aspect of the story, but it's the least essential. If you removed the intrigue, you'd still have a fine sketch of an interesting character in a well-observed setting. Schrader doesn't use Washington to make political pronouncements, although he seems to understand its culture of hypocrisy and expediency. He uses the locale to explore the value of loyalty and commitment in an environment that sees people as bargaining chips. Characters are challenged to commit themselves fully to one another, only to back away. (Ned Beatty and Willem Dafoe make the most of limited screen time as political foes cut from the same duplicitous cloth.) As a society matron played by the regal Lauren Bacall puts it, in Washington one never puts oneself between a friend and a firing squad.

Ultimately, Car must decide whether to take the bullet for Lynn. The film continues the movement in thrillers such as "Zodiac," "Michael Clayton" and "No Country for Old Men" toward reflecting on the way bystanders come to terms with being wounded. Detectives and lawyers can't make today's crimes fold up tidily like card tables. Every bystander walks away aching from the collateral damage.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186