4 November 2009 | johnnyboyz
Engaging, frightening and somewhat saddening account of a NYC man in crisis amidst all the negative elements of death, gloom and isolation.
Paul Schrader's love/hate relationship with close to down-and-out male individuals living in New York City continues in 1992's Light Sleeper. Schrader casts a dim eye on most of the proceedings in the place, but his revisiting of New York City in Light Sleeper, and whatever knowledge past you have of 1976's Taxi Driver, shows a clear fondness for the place; a fondness to keep going back and exploring new characters, operating under new situations and working with new problems floating around inside of their heads. In Light Sleeper's case, it is Willem Dafoe's John LeTour, a middle aged man whom deals drugs; meets some pretty desperate individuals in the process; cannot connect that well with the women he wants most; is stalked by police men and generally tries to balance his on-going loneliness with his inability to really find his place in life.
Light Sleeper is a wonderfully down to Earth and thoroughly intense film. With hindsight, one might think of it as a Trainspotting without all the hyper-kinetic energy. The film begins, quite literally, with a focusing on a road as we flow through New York; this is before developing into a ground level documentation of life flitting between streets, apartments that inhabit drug users and dealers, grotty nightclubs that house further users plus hotel suites which spell danger. The easy way to summarise the male lead we're given in Light Sleeper would be a comparison to Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle, as penned by Schrader. LeTour is a loner; he keeps a diary, although possesses better handwriting skills; attempts to talk and follow women he simply cannot have; and generally wanders. There is even room for the characters to pay reference to the rain at certain times, and its importance. Like Taxi Driver; the film is a gathering, only not of an individual's visions of what's around him, but of the interactions and of the people that exist around him.
This idea is best explored in a scene set in a hospital. LeTour is visiting the mother of a certain Marianne Jost (Delany), as another relative, whilst in the intensive care room, sits asleep in a chair. LeTour walks in and sits down. The camera freezes on him sitting there, almost certain death in the air by way of the dying mother and the fact there are those he hands drugs out to whom will perish at some point in the near future. It's only after a while that he glances over at the relative, and it's only then that the camera will slowly track left to encompass, indeed recognise, she's even sitting there. It's an interesting touch by Schrader, and reminiscent of Taxi Driver by being a sort of polar opposite: we see, indeed recognise, what LeTour sees but only until HE does so first. We do not get it in that raw, unflinching and 1st person style the 1976 masterpiece delivers, but we do get it in some manner of speaking.
Light Sleeper knows what it is and knows exactly how it wants to unfold. The film isn't a conventional thriller, of sorts, about a drug dealer and a world of crime and the interactions that go on, even if it does end in a conventional manner by way of a bloody shootout. Rather, the film is a stark character study of a man on the way out; of a man wasting his life away through drugs, not as a junkie – something LeTour stresses to certain people he meets, but as a dealer and that any relation you might have to the stuff will most probably end you up in very bad shape. As a raw character study, we pick the lead up in his late thirties and cover him for about a fortnight. The damage has been done; we learn of his past troubles and whatever back-story we require by way of speech to other people, and we learn it all at regular, very well spaced intervals.
The film's attention to LeTour's element of unrequited love in his life is additionally well handled, somewhat seamlessly incorporated into the text by way of a series of nervous and unfortunate encounters. We first meet the aforementioned Marianne when LeTour's chauffeur driven saloon stops to pick her up out of the wet. By way of Dafoe's wonderful acting, LeTour is juddery and the professionalism driven image that we have of him up to this point, by way of short sharp encounters and knowing exactly what to say to different sorts of lowlifes, is shattered somewhat when he lies to her about continuing dealing drugs and screws up the whole interaction. The lyrics in the music and the manner in which the character regresses over a photo-album in the following scene could have been explored and executed in a far worse-a manner. The film's remaining scenes of obsession and rejection surrounding these two are well incorporated into the text.
I think Light Sleeper's crowning glory is its real attention to the finer things. There's a scene in which LeTour's consistently outrageously dressed female drug contact Ann, (Susan Sarandon, fresh off a wonderful role in Thelma and Louise) who is the the person that supplies all of the drugs to LeTour along with Robert (Clennon), from their pseudo-upper class decorated apartment, asks LeTour for a lunch meeting the following day. I got an odd sensation after the interaction had ended that a lesser film would cut straight to the lunch: person 'A' proposes something to person 'B'; person 'B' accepts and then we cut to the rendez-vous. Light Sleeper rejects the causality, opting for notions, interactions and ideas to rest on the back-burner whilst the lead carries on for a while interacting further with other people before the day is out. Make no mistake, there'll be no light napping during this picture.