Light Sleeper

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Of the three “loner” films that Paul Schrader wrote, Light Sleeper gets the least love. Taxi Driver is always number one, of course, and American Gigolo is often mentioned in despatches. But ask people if they’ve seen Schrader’s 1992 drama and the answer is often an open mouth and a tilted head. It’s a pity because it’s a superb film in which Schrader gets it right both as a writer and as a director (something he doesn’t always manage).

These “loners” are all night workers too – Taxi Driver’s Travis (Robert De Niro), American Gigolo’s Julian (Richard Gere) and now, in Light Sleeper, Willem Dafoe’s John, a drug dealer who works the high end of the market supplying cocaine to white-collar types who are happy to overpay for drugs because it means they don’t have to mix with the riff rafff on the streets. John delivers, in every sense.

Schrader’s films are almost always about a crisis leading to salvation or damnation and as we join the action John is heading towards a showdown – with other people but most of all himself. Ann (Susan Sarandon), who runs his mini outfit, has decided she wants out and is going legit. John has no interest in taking over the running of her operation. He was happy as a clam just selling a bit here and there. Nor does Ann’s other worker bee, Robert (David Clennon), seem particularly interested in taking the reins.

It looks like one way of life is about to end for John, who makes noises about doing something in the music biz, but then does nothing to follow up. He’s 38, he says at one point. He’s probably 40. John is going over an existential cliff, though he barely knows it, and is given another nudge when he bumps into an ex, Marianne (Dana Delany), the woman of his dreams, who wants nothing to do with him because of the drugs but sleeps with him anyway. “That’s quite an erection,” she purrs. “I’m dripping,” she continues, possibly the only snigger you’ll get from this movie.

Out on the streets there’s a sanitation workers strike, so trash is building up – fresh metaphors, grab them while they’re hot – while on the soundtrack a saxophone growls away in a very 1990s style, but with enough time-travelling force to tell us that there’s inner conflict here.

John is a good drug dealer – as in he’s both good at his job and a pretty good person, or is trying to be. He’s a complex character it’s easy to like but not easy to get to know. Does Marianne still love him? Is co-worker Robert keen on him? What about Ann, who banters away with him in a flirty way. There are a lot of relationships in this movie, and all of them are compromised.

John, with Robert and Ann
Drug dealers John, Robert and Ann

Dafoe’s incredibly watchable performance is key. It’s low key and controlled. We can see that John is a charmer but also that there’s something troubling this guy whose life, he’s realising, has been one of following orders. For all John’s smarts, savoir faire and fast mouth, he’s a passive man suddenly confronted with a situation where he either engages actively or loses his soul. Schrader, raised an old-school Christian, is always worrying about his characters’ souls.

Gliding like one of the many slow sedans transporting John from one drug drop to another, Schrader slowly, slowly drifts John towards a spiritual crossroads where he has to make his choice – stick or twist? And John, in a deft turn of events, turns out to be both the angel of extermination and his own deliverance.

Schrader seems entirely at ease with this story. His direction is hugely assured, his pacing elegant but with a threat, and his cameras slide while his DP, Ed Lachman (who loves his auteurs – Ulrich Seidl, Todd Haynes, Steven Soderbergh, Robert Altman), gives us noirish shadow enough so we know what we’re watching but not so much that it’s a cliché, or distracting.

Sarandon is particularly good, acting for a change rather than performing, and there are nice turns by Victor Garber as a problematical high-end drug user, Jane Adams as Marianne’s less troubled sister, and a very short scene early on featuring Sam Rockwell, almost unrecognisably young (23 or so), as one of John’s clients.

It’s all about an almost relentless background tension and if there’s a nit to pick it’s that this drops a touch once John has had his decisive conversation with himself and takes the steps he has needed to take all along. Somewhere, in the distance I can hear Schrader shouting in exasperation that this is what writers call dramatic irony, dammit. Dramatic irony it is. Superb movie.

Light Sleeper – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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