Mary Beth Hurt
1 Hr., 43 Mins.
Light Sleeper February 24, 2018
inutes into our getting to know John (Willem Dafoe), the quiet, sinewy protagonist of Paul Schrader’s Light Sleeper (1992), we’ve already devised his backstory. He was a kid junkie, became a dealer in order to make the money necessary to pay for his habit, and, before he could really weigh the consequences of his actions, got locked into a life of crime.
Now here he is, 40 and no longer the man he used to be. He can’t do this anymore. He wants to live a straight life. Find a lady who
loves him, have a couple kids maybe. Get a job that doesn’t require him to break the law. That doesn’t require him to meet with customers who view him little more as an arm carrying some hot commodities.
But he’s trapped, and the dilemma he faces seems plausible. You can’t just get out of the drug racket – too many murderous, high-powered misers are part of the business. And you can’t just leave a big-name dealer boss like Ann (Susan Sarandon) – she treats you too well.
There’s also the fact that John has no idea what he’ll do if he does somehow manage to walk away from this seedy industry: he’s uneducated, experienceless. We presume he has no family to turn to. He certainly doesn’t have any friends.
But if he doesn’t get out soon, he’s going to lose what little he has left of himself. In Light Sleeper (1992), a Paul Schrader-helmed masterpiece, we watch as John tries to make good on his internal word over the course of what we surmise is a few days. We get an inside look into his private life, which mostly consists of wall staring, insomnia, and yearning for his former romance with Marianne (Dana Delany), which was mutually parasitic but nonetheless passionate. We also see his drug-dealing practices on the hourly, and how most of his interactions consist of him being used and abused rather than needed or even wanted.
Light Sleeper is an intensely lonely film, an ominous character study sonically comparable to Taxi Driver (1976). Such only makes sense: the latter movie was also penned by Schrader, and both are considered part of an unofficial “Night Worker” film series also consisting of American Gigolo (1980) and The Walker (2007).
The common thread tying these films together is the chronicling of the lives of alienated men. But remarkable is how they delineate loneliness with plentiful emotional interest – to be dejected in response never comes to mind because we’re so entranced with what we see on the screen. We’re desperate to crack these men open, to get inside their ever-unraveling minds.
Dafoe’s John is the most resonant (next to Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle, of course) of the leading characters featured in the above mentioned films, and that makes Light Sleeper among the thematically similar saga’s most emotionally understandable facets. John’s line of work might not invite sympathy, but Schrader’s writing, as well as Dafoe’s extraordinarily expressive performance, makes this man’s sorrow and confusion easily understandable – and utterly tragic. He’s the classic good man doing a bad man’s job, and there’s a certain claustrophobia playing a part in Dafoe’s portrayal that makes his yenning for a better life all the more dispiriting. There’s an agony seen in his eyes that could perhaps only be realized by an actor as punctilious as Dafoe.
Much of what makes Light Sleeper so hypnotic also has to do with John’s relationships with the women in his life. Respectively played by Sarandon and Delany – who are both exceptional here – these femmes beckon out the man John is when he’s putting on an act versus when he’s being real with himself.
When with Ann, we can see that John can be quick-witted and even charming when he needs to be. He’s adaptable, smart — a good, dedicated worker. When with Marianne, there’s an understanding that this man in front of us – compassionate, tender, affectionate – is the John John wishes he could be on the daily.
John and Marianne’s relationship is especially soul-stirring. As the film opens, the pair hasn’t spoken for five years. It’s probably better that way: The last time they were together, both were junkies who couldn’t function without some sort of hard drug swimming about in their bloodstreams. But now they’re a little older – and sober (though John drinks from time to time).
John is convinced the “I’ve changed” tactic can result in reborn romance. That they can pick up where they left off as functional adults rather than twitching, despondent messes. Marianne isn’t so sure. Everything seemed to fall apart whenever he was around in the past.
But affecting exchanges follow, and so does a brief rekindling of the connection they once had. So when the tragic conclusion to their reconnection arrives, we’re shattered. Delany is particularly excellent here: Like Dafoe, she conveys a kind of deep-rooted hurt that makes it clear she could be broken again like a porcelain doll if you toy with her at just the wrong moment.
Schrader’s more or less made this movie several times. He’s consistently made pensive, slightly sinister dramas that probe alienation’s place in our ever-unforgiving society. All have been stylish, contemplative. But different about Light Sleeper is its undercurrent of hope. Its suggestion that John, warts and all, maybe will get a second chance at life. It’s an endurance test, perhaps, sitting placidly as a conflicted anti-hero tries to make sense of himself without much of a plot to back him. But the movie is so humane, and contains such terrific performances, we’re more than willing to journey through John’s dangerous life. A