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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Light Sleeper is one of a related group of films, either written or directed by Schrader, in which the principal is typically a spiritual insomniac, sleepwalking through life. It includes Taxi Driver (1976), American Gigolo (1980) and, more recently, Bringing Out The Dead (1999). They are notable in the way interior states are portrayed, rather than the dynamics of plot, as is so often the case with conventional Hollywood product. Characteristic of this is the way criticism of the present film, for instance, has often focussed around the peremptory nature of the final gunplay. In most of this group of films, the pivotal scene is at the end, in the form of a cinematic 'epilogue', inspired by the transcendental conclusion of Bresson's Pickpocket (1950). (Schrader has written a book on a small group of directors, Ozu, Dreyer and Bresson, who have a particular world vision.)
Typically Schrader's most successful films have at their centre a social outsider, each of who needs to justify themselves, or to be justified. An unstable war veteran, a male prostitute, a burnt out paramedic: in turn they stumble through an insecure world, a personal earthbound hell, or "a world on fire." Schrader's cinematic somnambulists ultimately find belated grace in the eyes of providence. But when it arrives, it is inevitably achieved through the catharsis of violence, deliberately initiated or not.
Light Sleeper focuses on the midlife crisis of a drugs dealer, named John LeTour (Willem Dafoe). Although he is now 'clean' and dreaming of breaking away from his profession into a music career, LeTour is still travelling the city, delivering narcotics and working for his boss Ann (Susan Sarandon). Ann also dreams of escape, although in her case it is into a career in cosmetics - apt, as such items work in covering up people's real appearances. During one of his lonely, chauffeur-driven drop-offs through the night rain he meets a woman he was deeply involved with a few years back. Later he meets her again, this time with her sister, as they watch over their dying mother in hospital. Meanwhile, back in his flat LeTour sleeplessly completes a journal ("I fill up one book, throw it out, start another") and contemplates his drifting existence. As one deal follows another, his foreboding and pining for what might have been increases until, high on drugs he has just delivered, a woman is thrown from a window...
This is Schrader's favourite film, perhaps his most personal. Full of religious overtones, it reflects his background and upbringing in ways that are less explicit in his other films. His parents were strict Calvinists (such was the home regime that it was not until he was 17 that he saw his first film). During his early years, before his big break with the sale of Taxi Driver he himself faced the spectre of drug abuse. He apparently spent long nights awake in porno theatres and overate wildly. While LeTour is not a personal portrait, it is clear that the dealer is someone with whose moral crisis the director has much sympathy, as he faces self-disgust.
As the hero, the gap-toothed, haunted Dafoe is perfectly cast. Critics have remarked upon his white "prune-skinned horse-toothed beauty," the paleness of his flesh suggesting that he can only function at night. As he visits the hotel rooms and penthouse suites of addicts, passing through streets filled with the bagged garbage of the city, he does indeed seem damned, condemning himself over and over. Apparently doomed, he also fulfils the role of confessor. People, he notices, "think they can tell a DD anything - things they wouldn't tell anyone else." His fondness for cheap cologne, evident at key moments, suggests the act of anointing. In the excellent commentary that accompanies the film on the DVD, the director recounts how LeTour drifts round society, a 'peeper', a figure as anxious as Travis was angry in Taxi Driver, or as narcissistic as Julian Kay was in American Gigolo. For Schrader this is essentially the same figure, but one facing a mid life crisis of the soul. We can see the success of Schrader's approach by comparing his work to Landis' underrated Into The Night (1985), which takes sleeplessness as a theme, and in which the hero also ventures out into the unforgiving night. Landis' film is successful in its own terms, but lacks Schrader's moral rigour.
The elegance, and cool classicism, of Light Sleeper produces a style, characteristic of the director, that matches content. There are no jump cuts or abruptness. Instead the director lets his camera remain at a distance or glide suggestively through the streets and corridors of LeTour's world, as if assessing events with a deliberation of its own. Much of the exterior work recalls Taxi Driver, notably when LeTour is being driven through the rain swept streets, although here the position is reversed. The driver in the earlier film has become the driven, perhaps reflecting the dealer's inability to overcome his present moral inertia.
The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, notably Sarandon, who did the film as a favour to the director, ensuring its finance. Apparently based on a real acquaintance of Schrader, Ann is a notably glamorous supplier, one who remains un-besmirched by the nature of her business. Unlike LeTour, she survives the ups and downs of her profession, to presumably start her new life. It is her hand that offers LeTour moral succour in the notable final scene. The epilogue of Light Sleeper is the most important part of the film. "One and a half hours," blithely remarks the director in his commentary, just "to get to one shot." It's a shot that haunts Schrader, as already mentioned, and echoes down his work. LeTour has been concerned throughout the film that his luck is holding, even consulting a psychic to get favourable readings. By 'luck' Schrader really means grace, and his hero's final scene is as moving and as effective as the parallel one in American Gigolo. Perhaps more so, as here the religious allegory has been so thoroughgoing.
Sharp-eyed viewers of the present title will see a very young David Spade playing the 'Theological Cokehead', sparking off blurry philosophy during one of LeTour's earlier deliveries. The director admits, with amusing candour, that this character is he himself, "the one who got high and talked about God." This is closer to the truth than he modestly suggests. In Light Sleeper, his best film, he reaches a career high detailing providence in a way both stylish and characteristic of his talents.
Amazingly, a decade on from this film, Schrader is now in postproduction on Exorcist: The Beginning.
When the subject of modern noir films is discussed, there are always a small group of films that is mentioned. "The Last Seduction", "Blood Simple", "L.A. Confidential", etc. All worthy selections in their own right. Even better, I think, is "Light Sleeper", which is a noir film right down to the core of its being. Taking place almost entirely in afterhours Manhattan, it's the story of John LeTour (Willem Dafoe), a drug courier who works for Ann (Susan Sarandon), delivering cocaine to upscale clients. LeTour wanders around the city, chauffered about in a black sedan by a silent driver named Carlos. It's a lonely existence, one that has "noir" written all over it. But this isn't a shallow or violent or ironically self-aware redux of noir films. Much like another recent Schrader-scripted film, this plunges right into the heart of the story, not standing back at all, undetached. Unlike other recent noir films, such as "The Usual Suspects", this film's soul lies not in convoluted twists and turns, but in redemption. LeTour spends the film searching for a meaning to his life, looking in the wrong place, and eventually finding meaning and hope in a somewhat unlikely place. But in the end, he realizes that it's all he has left to hang onto. A beautiful film.
Paul Schrader is a director whose films should be seen more often. He
is a man that never compromises and tackles adult themes with great
panache, as he has amply demonstrated throughout his distinguished
career. He was long associated with Martin Scorsese, but when he
decided to go on his own, he showed his talent was there all the time.
Mr. Schrader's films have a sense of style that are not easily matched by many of today's filmmakers. He knows what seems to work, and what not. His movies show a sophistication, as we mere mortals, are invited to participate, even though we haven't received the invitation in the mail.
Most comments in this forum are excellent, so we won't even attempt to add anything that hasn't been said before. "Light Sleeper" is supposed to be one of Mr. Schrader's favorite films, and it's clear to see why. He has infused the film with characters that are easy to see why they are portrayed on the screen. Willem Dafoe is obviously an actor held in high esteem by Mr. Schrader. As John LaTour, Mr. Dafoe is at his most introspective self. His character shows a complexity that is hard to match.
The rest of the cast is excellent. Susan Sarandon is perfect as Ann. Dana Delaney is Marianne. Mary Beth Hurt, Victor Garber, Sam Rockwell, David Spade, are seen in supporting roles.
The great atmospheric music of Michael Been is heard in the background and it helps add another layer in the texture of the finished product. Edward Lachman does an amazing job with the way he photographed the film that includes a lot of night time scenes in Manhattan.
Take a look at the film, as Mr. Schrader will impress, even a casual viewer.
Like "Prince Of The City", this is another great drug movie, with the greatest set ever built for a movie, New York City. Very few people saw "Prince", and I'll wager fewer saw this one. It has a cast of New York stage actors, who make the usual run of Hollywood anorexic barbie dolls, and Sunset Strip would be tough guys, look exactly like what they are, refugees from some "hysterical" wise cracking sit-com. I have to mention each one of these artists because they're so incredibly good. Willem Dafoe, Susan Sarandon, Dana Delany (what a performance), David Clennon, Mary Beth Hurt, Jane Adams(the looney sister from "Happiness"), David Spade, and last, but certainly not least Victor Garber. Paul Schrader wrote and directed, and if he never does another production, his mother can know that she gave birth to a major cinematic artist. The story can impress people as very hokey. Dafoe is a coke pusher. But he's very sensitive and loving, and is looking for a "better life". He's so guilt ridden as a pusher, he can hardly sleep. Oh, give me a break. But wait. With Dafoe I bought it completely. I was even rooting for him to get back with his former junkie lover Dana Delany. Delany and Susan Sarandon give major performances, Sarandon as a major supplier also looking to go straight as a cosmetic maven. This is a major manual on acting....look, learn, and enjoy.
"Light Sleeper" is a great and very effective yarn that follows John
LeTour (Willem Dafoe), a drug trafficker/former addict who seems
miserable and lonely while bringing drugs to users in the Big Apple.
LeTour's life is put to the test when he finds out from Robert (David
Clennon), that their boss, Ann (Susan Sarandon), is finally switching
to cosmetics instead of drugs and an old flame, Marianne Joseph (Dana
Delany), comes to town to visit her ailing mother. The movie moves at a
steady pace and doesn't get ugly until the fierce and bloody shootout
near the end of the movie. I must note that I'm a big fan of Dafoe and
the strong (and moving) performance that he gives here is why I admire
him a lot.
The film's photography, shot by Ed Lachman ("The Limey", "The Virgin Suicides"), is nothing short of brilliant and beautiful. In the early moments of the film, there are several small piles of garbages that nearly cover up the sidewalks and the bottom of the street lights. Dafoe, who also narrates the movie, mentions that there's a strike. Also, the musical score that's composed and performed by Michael Been, is good to listen to and it stayed with me during the whole film.
Paul Schrader (who directed the movie and wrote the screenplay) knows very well how to handle the film here with a simple and wise approach. Most of his earlier (and recent) work, dating back (and now) to the screenplay(s) that he wrote for Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" and "Bringing Out The Dead" and one of his own films - "American Giglo" make great examples of anyone who works at night and feels agitated. "Light Sleeper" itself has to be one of Schrader's best films for sure.
Paul Schrader's finest film to date, and firmly lodged in my top 10, this is
a surprisingly overlooked and underrated gem. Often touted as a "modern
noir" movie, I really don't consider it in that genre at
The heart of the film is a reworking of the themes embodied in Schrader's earlier film "American Gigolo", where a man is forced to confront the fact that the life he is leading is fundamentally unsatisfying, reassess what he wants to do, find out who his real friends are and ultimately get redeemed through love.
Willem Dafoe's character Le Tour's journey is a slow but inevitable one, as his drug-dealing days are numbered due to his boss Susan Sarandon (also splendid) "going straight". Most of the scenes take place at night (hence the noir tag), but this is partly a consequence of the drug-dealing aspect and partly to capture the unreal mood of a man who doesn't know where he fits in to "normal" life. The device whereby Le Tour spends many hours writing his thoughts in an exercise book, throwing it away when he fills it, then starting another one, is so strong and startling that I put aside my usual dislike of narration. The soundtrack is also excellent and fits and expands the mood very well.
The best scene is probably the one in the hospital cafeteria, where Le Tour has a conversation with his ex-girlfriend that he hasn't seen for a long time - immaculately acted, tremendously understated with so many things going unsaid... The final scene, although Schrader nicked it from a French film, and used it before in "Gigolo", is still very powerful, based on the idea that whether a man is in prison or not is completely unrelated to whether he is free.
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.
Just wanted to add my two cents worth, mainly regarding where I differ from
the other comments.
A few folks complained that the ending was too similar to "American Gigolo" (and may have been, in turn, lifted from a nameless French film).
Well, I haven't seen "Gigolo" since it came out. (At the time, I remember liking it a lot more than most of my friends and most of the critics. I'm a sucker for redemption stories, I guess.) In any case, I've long since forgotten the ending, so that may explain why I found myself so moved by the ending of "Light Sleeper."
I also enjoyed the fact that it wasn't easy to see where things were heading, either in terms of plot or emotions.
But, the tradition of rather strange flaws in Schrader's movies continues, this time a god-awful musical score (sort of 90's era-Springsteen mixed with Robbie Robertson, but in a bad, bad way) that could have destroyed the movie for me -- if it weren't so superb in every other way.
The cast is consistently good and it's nice to see Mr. Intensity, Willem Dafoe, portray an essentially sweet natured, though intense, person for a change -- but I was especially entranced by Susan Sarandon's work toward the end of the film.
I understand that idea of the "drug dealer with heart of gold" may seem like an oxymoron -- but that's part of the point of the film, that our commonplace ways of characterizing our fellow man may not be all that terribly accurate in all situations.
In this light, there's an interesting scene about half-way through the film where a homicide detective questions Dafoe. The dialogue, and even the acting, could have been taken from a thousand movie scenes where a detective questions a sleazy dope peddler -- Dafoe even takes on the traditional body language that we associate with such characters. It's almost as if Dafoe wandered into a more traditional movie starring the detective.
But, knowing what we do about Dafoe's character and why he's not being forthcoming changes entirely the way we view the scene.
A drug runner searchers for redemption in a life that only has a past and present with no future in sight. Top performance from Willem and a clever characterisation from Saradon. The dialogue fits in perfectly while the music sets the mood right.
There are many movies that tells stories of drug dealers who are unhappy with their occupation, but not all of them paint such a clear character picture like the Light Sleeper. By the middle of the movie I could truly relate to the Willem Defoe character as a person. He has insomnia, he survived his own addiction, he writes a journal, and he cares about the serious questions in life. Most of us haven't sold drugs, but most of us will be able to relate to the torment that the character is going through. Its like being immersed in a sin, knowing that it is bad, and still doing it. As for cinematography, I enjoyed to see an urban setting full of electric lights, and the various people who cannot give the main character any relief for his loneliness. I did not care much for the Susan Surandon character, in light of Willem Defoe's performance she is sort of out of the picture. In the end I had a good emotional resolution. I liked this and I think you will like this movie as well if you are into serious films that tell stories of tormented people.
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