Monday, June 23, 2008

The Lure of Decadence: Light Sleeper (1992)

Aside from catching the same twenty minutes of Affliction on TV over and over again, Light Sleeper is the first of Paul Schrader’s directorial efforts that I’ve seen. Oddly enough, I’ve always been more familiar with his writing about film than his actual filmmaking. He’s an admirable talent in the field of film criticism, but now I can see that Schrader (who wrote Taxi Driver and has directed films like Auto Focus and American Gigolo) is able to bring the same deftness and elegance to his films that he brings to his prose. Light Sleeper, a strange, classically-plotted tragedy, is a good introduction to his work that has me wanting to go back and see as many of his films as I can get my hands on.

The movie stars Willem Dafoe as Johnny LeTour, a high-class cocaine dealer in New York City. Even though he’s long since kicked the habit himself, the aging LeTour has remained in the employ of Ann (Susan Sarandon), a charming lady-druglord whose rise to the top and knack for avoiding arrest have led to her being something of an underground legend. But despite Ann's notoriety, she and LeTour and her other associates don’t live any kind of glamorous Scarface-esque lifestyle. Schrader, who supposedly based his characters on real drug dealers he knew in NYC, portrays them as pragmatic businesspeople: they operate out of a small but classy apartment, and when not cutting product they spend their time ordering takeout and discussing their stock portfolios. In fact, Ann has long been planning to shift from distributing illegal substances to cosmetics, a move that has left LeTour with the helpless prospect of future unemployment.

Unable to sleep and haunted by his looming future, Johnny is shocked when he has two chance encounters with Marianne (Dana Delaney, whom guys from my generation will probably always remember from Exit to Eden), his long-lost love from his drug years. To compound the many changes in his life and his serendipitous reunion with Marianne (who rejects him as a bitter memory of her past), Johnny also finds himself the unwitting pawn in a murder investigation involving Anne’s “ecstasy connection” Tis, a bind that leads to the insomniac drug dealer being tailed by a New York City detective.

In addition to this nicely complicated and intriguing plot, Light Sleeper brings with it the all-too-rare pleasure of being able to watch Willem Dafoe carry a film. He’d proven himself as a reliable supporting player for years before this movie in films like Platoon and the campy-but-irresistible To Live and Die in L.A., and here he shows again why he’s so valuable. Despite being one of the most naturally creepy actors this side of Christopher Walken, he manages to wrangle a great deal of sympathy and understanding for LaTour whenever a scene requires it. It’s definitely to his credit that he manages to make the character of a shrewd drug dealer appear naive and almost innocent at times, especially in the scenes between he and the always excellent Susan Sarandon (whose run in the eighties and nineties-- from Atlantic City to The Hunger to Bull Durham-- continues to impress me).

In addition to the great chemistry between Dafoe and Sarandon, Light Sleeper also features some excellent (and truly bizarre) supporting performaces. Victor Garber, an underappreciated actor probably best-known as the ship designer from Titanic, is convincingly smarmy as the upscale drug user and dealer Tis. His character is Ann and Johnny’s best customer, a European party boy who frequently finds himself in binds when his young consorts end up OD’d and in the hospital. An even odder (albeit brief) role is played by a young David Spade, as one of Johnny’s whacked-out customers. Credited as the “Theological Cokehead,” Spade’s character spouts theories on the ontological argument for the existence of God while he snorts lines and says things like “do you ever think your whole life was just a tape, and somebody pushed play... and it’s just running?

One of my only major complaints with the film concerns (and it often does) the overuse of music. Maybe my love for No Country for Old Men’s minimalist score has made me biased, but it seems that Light Sleeper, like so many films, is redundant and excessive in its use of music, and the result is that the film seems dated when it shouldn’t have to. I’m convinced that the easiest way to stamp your film (for better or worse) as a relic of a particular time is to overuse popular music. Here, Schrader keeps annoyingly reusing the same Springsteen-ish sounding song by The Call, and when he’s not playing that, he fills the soundtrack with the same kind of lonely-sounding saxophone that seems to show up in every film about the mean streets of New York City. Not only is this kind of stuff cliche, but it runs in opposite direction from the rest of the movie, and it frequently threatens to undo otherwise excellent scenes with its mawkishness.

Still, Schrader’s craftsmanship is quite admirable. He’s a fine writer of dialogue, and he takes one of my favorite approaches to filmmaking: he follows a classical framework and structure, but allows the content to be fresh and shocking--a technique that works to create a certain kind of dissonance in the mind of the viewer. Schrader's a good enough writer that he doesn’t need any kind of fancy narrative tricks to enhance the plot, and as a director he includes some nicely subtle elements (like the garbage strike going on from the film’s start that has trash bags stacked on the street) that give the city an even seedier feel and mirror LeTour’s cluttered mind. The stakes keep getting higher and more tangled, and when things finally reach the level of violence, it’s as brutal and shocking as the famous scene at the end of the Schrader-penned Taxi Driver.

Light Sleeper reaches what for me is a perfect ending about 98 minutes in. The problem is that the film then continues on for another five minutes after that. It seems to me that all of the information in the last scene could’ve easily been placed elsewhere in the movie without much trouble, but then again I’m a sucker for abrupt, slightly-unresolved endings, and I can see how for some the actual last scene may make the film feel more cohesive. Either way, this was an impressive introduction to Schrader’s career. I’ve often heard his work described as flawed, but solid, and that is probably the best way to describe Light Sleeper. It’s a neglected, imperfect film, but it’s also a fine showcase of the particular talents of its star and its director.

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