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, 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.
DVD extras include scene access, director's commentary and specific scene commentary by Sarandon and Dafoe.