John LeTour (Willem Dafoe) spends most of his waking hours at night since he deals cocaine to all sorts of clients, and the product is most wanted at those night time hours, but that suits him because he has trouble sleeping anyway. If you can call it a job, it’s the only job he’s had for years, and he’s tiring of it now crack is dominating the scene, yet what else can he do? He would like to get into music production but that is not looking likely when he only has amateur experience, though his contacts who supply him with the coke, partners Ann (Susan Sarandon) and Robert (David Clennon), may be giving it up sooner rather than later anyway, which would leave him all at sea financially. When he returns to his apartment every morning he writes a diary, as if recording can soothe his mind…
But when the pages of his notebooks are filled, he doesn’t keep them for posterity, he throws them out, one of the little details in writer and director Paul Schrader’s Light Sleeper that was very telling, as if John was unconvinced of the worth of his life and the exercise of keeping a journal he was well aware nobody would ever read. As Schrader said, this was the third and final part of his loose trilogy comprising of Taxi Driver and American Gigolo before this, which meant each of those movies would follow much the same pattern, so by the point this was released the consensus was, yeah, very nice Paul but we’ve seen this one before, we know how it ends and what you’re saying. Basically, he was repeating himself.
However, plenty of filmmakers use the same themes and indeed similar scenes in their work, there would be no auteur theory without it, so what was so objectionable about Schrader doing the same? With this it was more honing those preoccupations down to a fine point, a purer distillation of his concerns than he had ever crafted before, within a milieu that he was very familiar with from his days of being a cocaine addict as many of the moviemakers of his generation had been. So at least there was a sense of authenticity to the setting, with its secret meetings to pass on little plastic bags of narcotics and take a small bundle of banknotes in return whether that be on the street or in some swanky apartment, the end result was always the same.
But Schrader being the religious soul he was, there had to be some kind of redemption involved and so it was when we came to contemplate John’s relationship with the love of his life, Marianne Jost (Dana Delany), not that he has seen her in ages when he catches up with her by chance when she is waiting on the street for a lift. He invites her into his chauffeur driven car that he conducts his rounds from, and soon it is clear she avoided him for a very good reason, no matter how noble in spirit he believes himself to be, the fact remains he is a bad influence, most blatantly because he doles out life-ruining drugs to people and takes their money for the dubious privilege. Therefore we have a strange situation where John needs the redemption on offer from Marianne, but could easily destroy her in the process.
The film never quite reconciled this issue, which made it stick in the mind even if it was building to the bloody climax Schrader had used to end his movies before, rendering a predictability that would be present even if you had never seen his work. Somehow, Dafoe sold it as a curious romanticism, no matter his character was creating misery for himself and others, he was the real victim, which could speak to a certain arrogance and self-centred quality, yet as John sincerely regrets getting into an occupation with no security – though you could argue there will always be people wanting to get off their faces on drugs – and when the sinister undercurrent develops into the unfortunate turn of events striking in the last half hour, you can sympathise with his wish to make amends, even if you cannot endorse the manner in which he does. Sarandon was just as good, whose professional connection to John left her as the only real rock in his life if he was able to realise it, and the landscape of after dark New York may have been just as familiar as the rest of it, but there was a reason for that, it contained its own downbeat glamour too. Biggest mistake: Michael Been’s laboured music.