“You start to see the connections between what they call luck and what we call grace. You start to see what they’re struggling for is some kind of divine magic that will protect them. That’s not different from a kind of spiritual longing.”
Part of Paul Schrader’s “man in a room” trilogy, Light Sleeper (1992) tracks the wanderings and goings-on of insomniac John LeTour, played by Willem Dafoe. The film, more of a tone poem, revels in nostalgia, from the melancholic soundtrack to the shots of a dirty decrepit New York. The film tracks LeTour as he delivers drugs to young white yuppies, but unlike other dramas dealing with drugs and the trajectory of street level dealers during the 1990s there is nothing celebratory or manic about the story’s presentation. LeTour, like many of Paul Schrader’s characters is Bressonian in psychology, alienated, isolated, and in spiritual conflict with himself.
Schrader forgoes explaining in great length LeTour’s journey from junkie to dealer, skips everything rote about the character that countless lesser pictures have mined. Instead, we open on cobblestone streets, a tracking shot in darkness, smoke billows out from subway grates and garbage is strewn haphazardly on the street. This could be a scene from Schrader’s earlier masterpiece, Taxi Driver (1976), the first installment of Schrader’s “man in a room” trilogy, but this is a different New York, a pre-Giuliani New York. A transition period in the city’s history when the streets were clogged with garbage while crime and sex were being moved out into the outer edges, unseen but still going strong. This would be the beginning of the end for New York, before chunks of the city would be sold off to Disney, Time Warner, and a whole host of overpriced tourist traps. Schrader and his DP, Edward Lachman, a Jersey native whose resume includes collaborations with Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, and Steven Soderbergh, keep everything low-key, shot mostly guerilla style and edited in a classic unobtrusive style, partly due to budget constraints. The unassuming visual style focuses your attention on the little details, be it a page from LeTour’s journal or the way the misé en scene will comment on the action on-screen.
As for the pace, Schrader adopts a languid, almost wearisome, narrative speed. Scenes often begin in media res with chunks of information withheld until something occurs forcing LeTour to react. In an interview with Filmmaker magazine Schrader commented on Light Sleeper’s structure, “A person goes from day-to-day, place to place, and has a job which takes him into other worlds. He’s sort of a voyeur who looks into other people’s lives and doesn’t have one of his own. And events happen and sometimes they seem of consequence and sometimes they don’t. At some point the events coalesce and form a plot and he’s under enormous pressure. There’s an explosion and an epilogue. I like that structure. I like that idea of the plot slowly insinuating itself into the drama.”
Schrader’s harsh Calvinist upbringing informs all the projects he’s worked on from Taxi Driver up till his recent First Reformed (2018), and Dafoe does a fantastic job conveying spiritual exhaustion. LeTour like Travis Bickle is a damaged idealist living in a morally relativist world. The biggest difference though is that LeTour has shed all the rage that defined Bickle as a character. LeTour is much older, and that rage has been replaced by introspection, tallying every choice and regret. Or as Paul Schrader remarked in that same Filmmaker interview, “The character has gotten older as I’ve gotten older. When he was in his twenties he was angry. When he was in his thirties he was narcissistic. And now he’s forty and he’s anxious.”
What little plot there is revolves, as in many neo-noirs, on an ex-girlfriend, Marianne (Dana Delaney), whose arrival causes a domino effect where LeTour’s nostalgia for an imagined past clashes with his present condition. Marianne’s presence reminds LeTour of a more youthful rose-tinted past. Yet, like many girlfriend archetypes it is only with Marianne’s death, akin to a sacrificial offering, does LeTour begin to have any sort of reaction. As for a bad guy, the closest thing to an antagonist the film is Victor Garber’s turn as Tis, a spray-tanned Euro-trash dealer, that acts as doppelgänger to LeTour. Whereas Tis cares nothing for his clients and can’t even really be bothered with their deaths, LeTour is pragmatic, and even refuses to sell his clients drugs if he thinks they’ll OD. The showdown between LeTour and Tis echoes Taxi Driver’s penultimate scene in the whorehouse; blood, violence, and death being elements in both, but while Travis Bickle desires obliteration and gains infamy, LeTour desires revenge and gains freedom, ironically through imprisonment.
Paul Schrader made his cinematic bones in the late-60s, first by penning several influential film essays and a book on what he called “Transcendental Cinema”. Followed by a stint as a screenwriter, penning films for Sydney Pollack, Brian De Palma, and Martin Scorsese. His career has been filled with its share of masterpieces and flops, and sadly while the digital revolution has allowed him to continue making films his new work often gets short shrifted. Light Sleeper will most likely not appeal to audiences looking to watch something akin to King of New York or Carlito’s Way, but the film’s unassuming visual style grabs you in the way Schrader and his collaborators, like a small chamber piece orchestra, evoke so much pathos in a banal tale of redemption.