Critics often rag on Paul Schrader for writing films about scumbags who find violence a shortcut to salvation. The conventional wisdom is that Schrader’s scripts play better if Martin Scorsese directs them (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and that when Schrader directs Schrader, the result is a heavy, humorless mess. But that’s not always true. In directing his own Hardcore and American Gigolo or scripts written in a darkly witty vein (Nicholas Kazan’s Patty Hearst, Harold Pinter’s Comfort of Strangers), Schrader can be slyly inventive. Crowd pleasing? No. Challenging? You bet.
It’s difficult to imagine anyone but Schrader controlling the moral turbulence in his script for Light Sleeper, a boldly resonant thriller that elaborates on Schrader’s favored themes of sin and redemption. John LeTour, a drug dealer played by Willem Dafoe, is a loner with direct connections to Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle and American Gigolo’s Julian Kay. At forty, LeTour is in crisis. His boss, Ann (a fireball Susan Sarandon), is about to chuck drugs for cosmetics. LeTour is losing his coke customers to crack. And he is spooked by a psychic, strikingly played by Mary Beth Hurt. But in his diary (one of several tips of the hat to Robert Bresson’s seminal Pickpocket), LeTour writes, “I can be a good person.”
Maybe so, but transcendence doesn’t come easy. New York’s mean streets, given a noirish sheen by cinematographer Ed Lachman, tempt LeTour as he drives through the night making deliveries to the sleek and the sleazy. He is heartened by a chance meeting with Marianne (Dana Delany), an embittered former love and former addict who lets down her defenses for one night. (Warning: Hearing Delany announce, “I’m dripping,” during a hot sex scene with Dafoe may be too much for China Beach fans.) As expected, violence erupts before things settle down. Schrader is out there again, testing the limits of audience tolerance. Good for him. Buoyed by his questing spirit and Dafoe’s mesmerizing performance, Light Sleeper might just keep you up nights.