Light Sleeper (1992)

Paul Schrader | 1hr 43min

Between the two lonely, embittered night workers of Light Sleeper and Taxi Driver who resentfully lament the decay of New York City yet actively contribute to its moral degradation, it is notable how distinctly Paul Schrader writes both on inverted paths. Where Travis Bickle’s discontent manifests as a dark irony simmering through deluded voiceovers, here it becomes a hopeless, self-aware melancholy for Willem Dafoe’s drug dealing insomniac, John LeTour, reconsidering the unsavoury direction his life has taken. Years ago, he was among those helpless addicts itching for their next hit, but while he was able to eventually sober up, he was not able to depart from that world entirely. Now, he and his supplier, Ann, run a steady but shady trade, dreaming of turning it into a cosmetics business that might pull them out of the squalid pits of American society.

Matching Schrader’s austere character study is a dedication to darkly lit environments and grimy textures painting every surface of this city, illuminated only by the white beams of headlights and streetlamps that glance off rain-glazed windows. The choice to shoot on location imbues the setting with an unmistakably authentic urban grit, which is only further underscored by the piles of trash mounting on kerbsides as monuments to human filth. Like Taxi Driver, Light Sleeper is set at the peak of a garbage strike, leading us to consider what poor working and social conditions reach across the lowest rungs of society beyond LeTour’s immediate view. Corruption runs deep in Schrader’s superb visual direction, wrapping up these characters in a foul, contaminated bubble that sees a steady decline in any possibility of escape or, at the very least, regained honour. 

Schrader highlights the dinginess of New York City in its harsh street lighting, decor, and textures – a true visual accomplishment to go with his superb screenplay.

Stuck in a rut of self-disgust, it takes a chance meeting with his ex-wife for LeTour to start climbing his way out of his mental grind. Years ago, he and Marianne shared an intensely unhealthy relationship, both hooked on every drug they could get their hands on, and now with their paths crossing again, old feelings and habits begin to resurface. Given the way he records her name on her voicemail and plays it on repeat like an addiction, we can understand the sort of co-dependency that they once shared, and which now threatens to rear its head again. Still, there is no getting past the giant barrier which lies between them, which Schrader manifests visually in the architecture of a hospital café where they meet, dividing the frame right down its centre with a wide pillar that situates them on opposite sides. 

Direct inspiration from Antonioni’s L’Eclisse in this visual divider dominating the frame with a huge mass of negative space.

DaFoe’s usually expressive face is notably sullen here as LeTour, tempered by years of soul-sucking routine and little to show for his work. Like the few other actors fortunate enough to have landed a lead role in a Schrader-written film, he is given a wealth of emotional complexity and substance to work with, especially in voiceovers that sprout melancholic reflections from his diary entries. From within a messy apartment, he sits and writes under the dim light of a lamp, spilling out those private confessions and deliberations in voiceovers while we watch his interactions with clients and associates. 

This is one in a long line of Schrader character studies picking apart masculinity, guilt, and corruption. Robert De Niro, Ethan Hawke, and Oscar Isaac have all given some of their best performances with his intelligent screenplays, and Willem DaFoe is no different in Light Sleeper.

Schrader goes on to layer LeTour’s characterisation even further with a sharp intuition as well, not just in the faith he puts in the guidance of spiritualists, but also in his observations of others’ behaviours. The camera matches this with its own focused tracking shots moving through scenes like an acutely observant eye, studying the details of each environment and informing his gut instincts. Early on he picks out one undercover cop at a bar with ease, and later when a tragic death is officially ruled as a suicide, his suspicion that the blame lays at the feet of one his clients saves his life in a deadly confrontation.

The framing of the doorway paired with the blocking and lighting, projecting rays down from the ceiling – a thoughtful composition directing our eyes to DaFoe in the background.
This soft, natural light washing over New York’s graffitied walls and dirty streets could be a shot straight out of The French Connection.

As sharp as LeTour’s mind is though, Schrader hangs a constant cloud of drowsiness hangs over his head, with a lonely saxophone haunting Michael Been’s music score and long dissolves blurring transitions between scenes. It takes something drastic to motivate him to make any sort of move that might break this detachment from reality, but when it does arrive the moment is heralded with a new day dawning, and the garbage strike coming to an end. Quite literally, the streets are being cleansed of its scum, just as LeTour comes to a decisive conclusion about the course of action he must take. Travis Bickle might have come to a similar conclusion in Taxi Driver, but in place of corruption darkening LeTour’s soul, Schrader earns his protagonist a redemption arc that delivers the spiritual and moral resolution he seeks, even as he is damned in the eyes of the public. 

Long dissolves transitioning between scenes, creating dreamy imagery like this – New York City contained within LeTour’s diary.

Like the ending to Schrader’s later film, The Card Counter, the physical prison that his protagonist winds up in is insignificant compared to the emotional freedom he has won, and the close-up he holds on through the closing credits does well to illustrate the purity of that. Though not explicit within the text, Schrader’s Christian faith underlies the grace of LeTour’s redemption, recognising it not as a singular act but rather a process of constant atonement. The New York City of Light Sleeper may be caught in mindless cycles of transgression and shame, but for as long as there is the motivation of love to set things right, the path to reformation is always open.

Lingering on this final shot as the credits roll, not in a freeze frame, but rather letting the actors hold the pose – an image of redemption through love.

Light Sleeper is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes.

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