The Best Movie You Never Saw: Light Sleeper
Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time or has aged like a fine wine.
40-year-old drug dealer John LeTour (Willem Dafoe) is struggling with his place in life. A recovering addict and insomniac, LeTour delivers drugs to upscale clients via his supplier, Ann (Susan Sarandon). Confronted with an ex-lover (Dana Delaney) and a series of suspicious drug-related deaths, LeTour tries to keep his head above water in a dark world that seems to want him to drown.
Paul Schrader wrote and directed the film, which has been likened to the third part of his “man in a room” trilogy, following TAXI DRIVER and AMERICAN GIGOLO. Willem Dafoe takes the lead as LeTour with Susan Sarandon as Ann, Dana Delaney as Marianne, David Clennon as Ann’s drug-supplying partner, Mary Beth Hurt as a psychic, with Victor Garber as a shady client, Sam Rockwell as a dealer, and David Spade as a theological cokehead.
Schrader wrote LIGHT SLEEPER after a dream he had about a real person who became the basis for the lead character, John LeTour. He wrote the script quickly and was shooting in less than a year after completing it. Production on LIGHT SLEEPER began without all of the financing in place, using Schrader’s own money for the first three weeks.
The film opened to generally favorable reviews but ended up making just over $1 million domestically, which is exceptionally slim compared to its $5 million budget. In the long run, LIGHT SLEEPER has skated under the radar by general audiences, but gradually earned it’s spot amongst Schrader’s best work.
WHY IT’S GREAT:
LIGHT SLEEPER fits the mood and atmosphere of Schrader’s prior works, including Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER and his own AMERICAN GIGOLO, centering on a man struggling with his own sense of self, be it his beliefs, his mortality, or his work. These are conflicted, flawed characters, trapped in a world that is of their own doing and looking for a way out. Dafoe’s LeTour is afraid that there’s no hope left for him, that he’s run out of luck, yet at the same time chases redemption.
LeTour has been working for Ann, the supplier, for years, but she’s primed to take her earnings and put them into a legitimate cosmetics business, which would leave him out of work. Ironically, LeTour is a recovering addict selling drugs and his fear is that if he were to take over for Ann he would go back to using. He half-heartedly thinks he can find other work doing something else, but his motivation isn’t quite there, being more or less stuck in his ways.
"A strong leading man can maintain an element of mystery into the second hour of a film and make you feel they still have some surprises left to show you, and Willem is very good at that. He modulates his performances very carefully so you feel there's always something left to come, and for me that's the essence of his intelligence as an actor." – Paul Schrader
What drives LIGHT SLEEPER is the nocturnal hum of the world LeTour lives in. You feel immersed in this seedy criminal underworld, which LeTour functions best in. The film is thick with atmosphere, but not necessarily one you want to be in. It’s a dirty, ugly world, devoid of glitz or beauty. Every city in the world has people and places like the one LeTour operates in, but it’s not where you ever want to find yourself. You know if you belong there or not.
LeTour plods along, existing, until he sees his ex-girlfriend, Marianne, played by Dana Delaney. She is fearful of him, both because of the drug-induced life they led prior and the fact that she still has feelings for him. She’s both cold and inviting at once and certainly deeply wounded by LeTour, who sees her as a beacon of hope to reconnect and start over. Their dialogue together is harsh, uncomfortable, and engaging. You want them to connect, but you’re not sure if it’s the right thing for either character.
"There's a bit of a parable about it all. Movies are not documentary and even the most documentary of movies are still not documentary. So you kind of tell parables that are rooted in real characters and real situations. One of the things you try to do is find those characters inside yourself, and also speak to the times in which you live." – Paul Schrader
Schrader creates anxiety at every turn. Everyone feels like real characters, be it junkie dirt bags, shady clients, ex-lovers, or asshole cops, and nobody comes off as trustworthy, even Letour, who simply doesn’t trust himself. Everyone is unpredictable and can turn on a dime one way or another. LeTour, however, seems like someone caught in a different life. He’s good at what he does, likeable, and street smart, but he’s not particularly violent, mean, or nasty. He’s a good guy living in a bad guy’s skin, trying desperately to fight his way out. When he sees a psychic (Mary Beth Hurt) his main concern is wondering whether or not he can turn his life around. He isn’t worried about wealth or love, but his own salvation.
Schrader employed John Been to do the music for the film, which features a number of original songs. I couldn’t imagine the film without them. Much like the DRIVE with Ryan Gosling, the music is every bit a part of the film as the actors. Been’s songs are perfectly suited, lending themselves to the harsh, dark world, like street rock ballads, drumming along with the major beats of the film. It’s so rarely done, as most films crank the volume down with songs, utilizing them only as an intro or outro in a scene. Schrader does the opposite, kicking the music in when the scene gets heavy and it works exceptionally.
“…the idea even from the script stage was to have a third voice for the character. He has his dialogue voice and his diary voice and his song voice, which is his most romantic voice. Having it come out of the mouth of another person allowed it to be more romantic. [The music] sounds sort of like film scoring but in fact it’s another way the character can talk to you.” – Paul Schrader
LIGHT SLEEPER is one of those films that I consider part of my early film education; when I stopped watching films on a level of just killing time and started really paying attention to what I was seeing. It’s riddled with enigmatic characters that play off each naturally. The dialogue is crisp, but spoken in a world that most of us don’t live in. It’s always felt like a movie that didn’t realize how great it actually was, instead settling for where it is. It’s the perfect irony when compared to LeTour, a character who doesn’t fully know what he’s capable of until he’s pushed to his limits, which culminates in his world crumbling around his ears to the bittersweet end.
“Well, it’s that notion that only when we accept our imprisonment can we be free. Only when we accept our determined fate, the prison house of the body, as Calvin would say. When we accept these limitations, then we can burst free. And so in Pickpocket, American Gigolo, and Light Sleeper it is the imprisoned man who finally gets freed.” – Paul Schrader
There are a number of great little moments throughout the film, but I feel it all comes together in the end. The final confrontation in a hotel is wonderfully shot and edited, with Been’s music driving the showdown to a great conclusion. The very final shot of Dafoe kissing Sarandon’s hand is another key moment that stays with you long after it’s over, but in the interest of keeping you free of spoilers, the opening scene sets a good stage to warm you up.
"I really fell in love with the script because it creates a very specific world and it points to something that's very much in the air these days. I think everyone agrees that this country is going through a period of deep disillusionment--there's a lack of center and direction, and people have lost their way. Who do people trust these days? Nobody, and things are getting worse. But just as the character in the film finally manages to rise from the ashes of his life, I believe in the possibility that new leaders will emerge out of people's discontent and they'll offer a new way of thinking and a sense of hope. – Willem Dafoe
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