Finding hope in the films of Paul Schrader can often feel like a lost cause, but it’s usually there…you’ve just got to look a little harder. That search for something to hang onto is present almost immediately in Light Sleeper, which follows the exploits of John LeTour (Willem Dafoe), a mid-level New York drug dealer nearing 40. In the opening moments, we watch LeTour ride around in the back of a car, gazing out at the city’s denizens through the window while Michael Been’s doom-laden “World on Fire” blares over the soundtrack. The message is pretty clear: The world is coming down around him, and LeTour is merely existing to bear witness.
A former addict now clean, LeTour makes his trade in selling to those not as lucky as him to kick the habit. His existence is a transient one, floating into people’s lives to exchange goods for cash, and floating out just as easily. If he disappeared, they’d simply find someone else to replace him. Like the protagonists in Schrader’s previous two entries in what’s been dubbed his “trilogy of loners”—Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and Julian Kay in American Gigolo—these men offer something to a world that doesn’t give them much in return. They’re ghosts, observing the fall of everything around them. They hear the thoughts of their clients, people more than happy to unload their basest ideas onto this total stranger, because to the clients, these men are merely figments.
In a special feature on Indicator’s Light Sleeper Blu-ray, Schrader connects the three films. “These guys I write, the taxi driver and gigolo and the drug dealer—that sense of being inside somebody who is waiting, wearing his mask for so long waiting for something to happen and then something happens,” the filmmaker says. “In Light Sleeper, he sees a girl in the rain. In First Reformed, a young kid kills himself. In Taxi Driver, he sees the girl at the political [event]. Something happens and life does have meaning.”
Describing the film as his “midlife movie,” Schrader is in a transitional phase with Light Sleeper. While a film like Hardcore (1979) deals with a man’s resistance to the sex-filled world his daughter’s generation is coming up in, and later work like First Reformed (2018) grapples with the overwhelming despair at the damage mankind has wrought upon our earth, Light Sleeper is about one man’s relationship with the world around him. Where does he fit in? Does he fit in at all?
Schrader has described it as his most personal film; he spent the first three weeks of pre-production funding the film with his own money before finally obtaining financing for the project. It’s the only time he’s ever done this.
As a Schrader lead is wont to do, LeTour details his many swirling thoughts in a diary, noting that another dealer told him “when a drug dealer starts writing a diary, it’s time to quit.” That’s when he picked up the habit, and in his ghostly way he simply fills them up and throws them out before starting another. Quitting is on his mind a lot these days, though we learn through conversations with his supplier Ann (Susan Sarandon) that it’s something he’s discussed plenty of times before. He took acting classes previously, and now he wants to get into music. For her, the way out is the cosmetic industry, which she’s finally making moves on transitioning into. It’s a natural step forward—another field operating in the same structure of suppliers, dealers and users. It’s all the same game.
Plagued by the restless thought that his luck has run out, LeTour heads to a psychic (Mary Beth Hurt) for guidance. She tells him, “Everything you need is around you. The only danger is inside you.” That idea of luck, fate, destiny of some sort certainly must enter his mind when he encounters a former flame—Marianne (Dana Delany), that “girl in the rain” Schrader mentioned—picks her up and offers a ride. He longs to reconnect to this now-clean visage of his former life, but she rebuffs him upon discovering that he’s dealing. Marianne can’t escape him for long, however, as circumstance leads to them running into each other yet again at the hospital where Marianne’s mother is slowly slipping away, a sign that something unresolved is there between them.
The two sit for coffee in the hospital cafeteria, where Schrader employs his genius for framing to tell us everything we need to know about this relationship. Using two alternate angles, we see LeTour and Marianne sitting across a table, separated by a pillar—representing that detachment, the lost connection they once had. Then, suddenly, Schrader flips the angle to the other side of the table, where the pillar no longer obscures our view, and we see the two link their fingers, forging that bond again after all this time.
Marianne takes LeTour to bed, where we are treated to some of Schrader’s most classic lines of intimacy. “That’s quite an erection,” Marianne says to LeTour as the two stare into each other’s eyes while their naked bodies brush up against each other. “I’m dripping,” she follows up. The scene is bathed in the gorgeous, striking colors of cinematographer Ed Lachman, who uses his trademark gels to give us those powerful Robby Müller-esque greens, reds and blues. Lachman wanted to employ them more, but Schrader opted for a grayed-out palette for the majority of the film, more accurately representing LeTour’s detached relationship with the world. It certainly comes back with a bang post-coitus, as Marianne gets up and essentially tells LeTour thanks for the closure, now you’ll never see me again.
While LeTour was simply a resolution for Marianne, she was his hope for salvation. After the event, he journals that he can change, he can be a better person. What a strange thing to realize halfway through your life that you can change, he thinks. What luck. Yet, the push for redemption is met with resistance by the world around him. Murders lead the cops towards him; a teenage victim was found with drugs, and he’s a known dealer.
Having met while working on Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (which Schrader wrote), Schrader had Dafoe in mind for the role of LeTour because he saw the potential to do something different with him than what the actor was quickly becoming known for. From his first major role as a vicious biker in Kathryn Bigelow and Monty Montgomery’s The Loveless, Dafoe spent the 1980s being built up as one of Hollywood’s most effective villains, stealing the show in Streets of Fire, To Live and Die in L.A. and—as maybe his nastiest baddie yet—Wild at Heart. LeTour may be considered a bad man by some, but the role was the actor’s most understated yet.
Most will likely know Dafoe’s antagonistic roles, as he would continue to delightfully devour scenery in Speed 2: Cruise Control, the Spider-Man franchise and so many more, but folks who think he can’t do subtle should consider Light Sleeper mandatory viewing. Not many could pull off LeTour’s cool desperation, this absence of purpose yet deep yearning for some kind of meaning amidst the onslaught of moral decay. Schrader sets the film amidst a New York sanitation strike where bags of trash are piling up higher and higher on the sidewalk around him, and Dafoe makes you feel like the discarded remnants of the city are seeping into his veins.
Schrader described writing the film’s script with the idea of his main character having three ways to express himself: Dialogue, diary and narration, and in the music which would chronicle his journey. He wrote Light Sleeper with five specific Bob Dylan songs in mind, assuming that it would be an easy ask to acquire the use of them, as he had directed Dylan’s music video for the song “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love)”. Amusingly, Dylan agreed to let Schrader use five songs for the film…but insisted on five different songs, which the director totally disagreed with. The two couldn’t make a compromise, both of them being stubborn men who believed fully in their visions, and Schrader made his way to musician Michael Been instead.
From that opening use of “World on Fire”, Been’s vocals and melancholic, somber tones feel as rooted in the essence of Light Sleeper as Dafoe’s razor-sharp bone structure, or those heaps of trash bags lining the sidewalks. It’s not technically LeTour singing these songs, but it may as well be, as Been’s music takes us along the emotional throughline of the film and gives us the interiority of LeTour that we aren’t able to experience from his spoken words. These three specific forms of communication allow us that full insight into his perspective as he wanders this lonely, desolate world.
Trying to make good while everything is crumbling around him, things reach their nadir when LeTour makes a visit to client Tis (Victor Garber). Enacting the exchange in his apartment, out from another room stumbles Marianne, clearly under the influence. Distraught by her mother’s death, she has succumbed to her addiction, relapsing—and now yet again confronted with LeTour. Was his return a catalyst for her relapse? LeTour quickly leaves the apartment, only to be startled while walking to his car by the shrieks of civilians around the corner. He turns back around to find Marianne, dead on the sidewalk, having fallen from Tis’ apartment. LeTour sits down, racked with the guilt and tragedy of Marianne’s death—and the question of whether it was suicide or murder. Like clockwork, his beeper goes off, another client looking for their fix.
Light Sleeper climaxes with a shootout reminiscent of Taxi Driver’s finale: LeTour brings a gun to confront Tis, something which Schrader acknowledges was added at the studio’s insistence for financial reasons (the film was nevertheless not a box office success). It feels at odds with the nature of the film, but Schrader blasts Been’s music over the exchange of bullets to make it a work of pure poetry, allowing it to feel more like an emotional crescendo than a genre exercise.
LeTour survives the gunfire, but is incarcerated as a result. Meeting with him at the prison, Ann begins a conversation that recalls the one he had with Marianne—those names not coincidentally being so similar. Here, the two are across the prison table, holding hands, when LeTour asks her if they ever had sex. He feels like they must have, but he can’t remember, and it’s odd that they haven’t. She says they tried once, but it didn’t happen, implying that he was perhaps too under the influence to get it up. That was a lifetime ago, in some sense.
It’s not the first time Schrader would draw a direct parallel to the ending of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, in which the lead is imprisoned but finds himself optimistic about the future. Schrader employed the ending in American Gigolo and would do it again in The Card Counter. Yet, like many of Schrader’s predilections, the repetition and clear reference point doesn’t feel derivative. Instead, it draws a connection between the filmmaker and his leads—men who find themselves repeating the same cycles, caught in the same loops, going over a path time and again and hoping for a different outcome. LeTour tells Ann, “I’ve been looking forward,” and now they can look forward to a brighter future together. Maybe there’s still some hope left.
Currently based in Newark, Delaware, Mitchell Beaupre is the Senior Editor at Letterboxd, and a freelance film journalist for sites including The Film Stage, Paste Magazine, and Little White Lies. With every new movie they watch, they’re adding five more to their never-ending Letterboxd watchlist. You can find them on Twitter at @itismitchell.