Paul Schrader has always struck me as more ambitious than gifted. In the years since he wrote the script for Taxi Driver (1976), he has directed a series of edgy, subversive psychodramas (American Gigolo, Mishima, Patty Hearst) that, on paper, sound fascinating and, on screen, have almost always turned out to be freeze-dried duds. Now, though, Schrader seems to have found his way. In Light Sleeper, he attains a new, fluid emotionalism. The movie is a small but absorbing mood piece, a canny insider's view of the life of a Manhattan drug dealer.
The hero, John LeTour (Willem Dafoe), is a quietly tormented 40-year-old ex-cocaine addict who supports himself by clinging to the lowest rungs of the drug trade. We can see from LeTour's impassive, hollowed-out face that he's burnt a shell of a man. Yet he's a shell who functions. Every day he shows up at the plush apartment of his boss, the feisty, extravagant Ann (Susan Sarandon), who deals cocaine to a roster of upscale clients. LeTour delivers the packets and handles the customers. The job gives him something he can't get anywhere else: It's a recovered addict's way of staying close to the drug world's adrenaline edge.
The clients, an entertaining cross section of New York decadents, range from a desperate yuppie addict (Paul Jabara) to a Eurotrash scoundrel (Victor Garber) who favors wild young girls. LeTour knows and understands them all their habits, their obsessions. He's a phantom Dr. Feelgood slipping in and out of people's lives. Now, though, the '80s high life is fading. In a few months, Ann plans to go legit, using her drug money to launch a cosmetics company. Can LeTour part ways with the drug culture when it's all he really knows?
Much of the fascination of Light Sleeper comes from its portrayal of drug dealing as a livelihood, a job. Ann's apartment has the atmosphere of an eccentric mail-order firm, with Ann, LeTour, and the other courier, a gay cutup named Robert (David Clennon), cracking jokes and ordering in Thai food. All three are '60s survivors. Their roots show in scattered references to astrology and superstition, the dark counterculture mysticism forming an idle refuge for people outside the law. At several points, LeTour even consults a psychic (Mary Beth Hurt) though his wide-eyed faith in her might seem more touching if the film itself didn't share it.
The basic outline of Light Sleeper a drug dealer in existential turmoil is reminiscent of American Gigolo. Only there's a new confessional spark to Schrader's filmmaking. As he has admitted in interviews, he had a major run-in with cocaine himself, and Light Sleeper burns with the feelings of someone who has known the cross-wired ecstasies and agonies of addiction.
In a rainstorm, LeTour runs into Marianne (Dana Delany), his girlfriend from years ago. They were in love, but mostly what they shared was drugs. LeTour explains that he's clean now, and Marianne believes him (sort of), yet she's terrified of what he represents her own susceptibility to drugs. Dafoe and Delany get a beautiful interplay going. In an eerie love scene, LeTour's reminiscences become a plaintive and shocking reminder of coke's life-destroying powers.
As LeTour and Marianne fall back into each other's lives, the movie grows both richer and more rickety. Schrader, in a nod to Taxi Driver, has LeTour reading disaffected diary entries on the soundtrack. Yet we never quite feel what we did in that film that the hero's actions are expressions of his tortured psyche.
The plot of Light Sleeper is too contrived. When a key character jumps (or is pushed) off a roof, the tragedy just seems a convenience, a way of letting the hero work out his mid-life crisis. Still, even when the film doesn't gel, one is held by Willem Dafoe's grimly compelling performance. With his dread-ridden gaze, he captures the yearning desperation of a man who has given up drugs only to discover that he may not have anything else.