The ’90s was a strange period in Paul Schrader’s career, following on from its early heights in the ’70s through to his magnum opus Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. The New Hollywood was long dead by the time that Schrader got back from his adventure in Japan while making that film, which he followed up with his Michael J. Fox/Joan Jett musical drama Light of Day (perhaps the biggest curveball in Schrader’s filmography—and he made a Exorcist prequel!). The Indie film boom was happening, but he was seen as too old and too “establishment,” although he is far more at home in that world. Look at his most revered screenplay, Taxi Driver… that was made by a major studio, but just a few years later it would have only been an indie film, and would never made in today’s world. Patty Hearst was his first indie in 1988, The Comfort of Strangers was an Italian production, and then Light Sleeper found him back on the mean streets of New York City—but he is older and perhaps wiser, as is Schrader’s man and his room.
Light Sleeper is essentially the third in an on-going series of films that Schrader has made about a man and his room, and his different occupations, whether it’s a taxi driver, gigolo, drug dealer, society walker or, most recently, a priest in First Reformed (the best one of these since Taxi Driver). It’s also worth noting Bringing out the Dead, which Martin Scorsese directed and Schrader wrote. It is thematically linked but not considered a part of the cycle, although it arguably should be. It is the only one based on a novel, so maybe that’s why. In Light Sleeper, Willem Dafoe plays John LeTour, who is an insomniac ageing drug delivery boy for Ann (Susan Sarandon), and at a personal and spiritual crossroads. Much like Schrader’s lead in First Reformed, John is keeping a journal of his innermost thoughts, it’s interesting revisiting the film and seeing the seeds here of First Reformed, which in some regards is probably the film he wishes he had made. For years, Schrader considered Light Sleeper to be his most personal film, but he now cites First Reformed, and in the extras on the Indicator disc is very dismissive of the shoot-out near the end of Light Sleeper, labelling essentially it as a commercial decision.
Many of the best filmmakers have basically made the same film over and over, and Schrader is no exception. He literally uses the exact ending of American Gigolo here, which he freely admits he stole from Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, a film that continues to be arguably the biggest influence on his work. Dafoe is great in the role, but that’s hardly surprising, as he is one of those chameleon-like actors who can flip between blockbuster to crazy to tender without effort, he is one of the great screen actors. Susan Sarandon, who has the showier role, just proves yet again that she really is one of the most fearless actresses alive, now shamefully seen as a bogeywoman by centrist Democrats for daring to support Jill Stein instead of Hillary Clinton in 2016. It’s not the best-written role by any means, but her gung-ho performance brings it alive.
Dana Delany plays Marianne Jost, John’s old girlfriend. He runs into her, but she refuses to give their relationship another go. The roles are reversed in First Reformed, where Ester (Victoria Hill), who works at the megachurch that owns the tiny historic but mainly tourist church where Ernest Toller (Ethan Hawke) works, is clearly infatuated with him, but he rebuffs any possibility of a romance. Both scenes of rejection happen in cafeterias: one in a hospital cafeteria and one in a church cafeteria. Schrader’s wife Mary Beth Hurt appears as a psychic advisor, and while that character seems a little unnecessary in the film, it gives John somewhere to go to that isn’t AA or NA. John may still be dealing drugs, but he has given up using drugs, a decision that is partly responsible for his breakup with Marianne.
Light Sleeper marked the first of two collaborations between cinematographer Edward Lachman and Schrader—the other is an interesting if terribly flawed Elmore Leonard adaptation, Touch. Lachman is heavily into gels in his cinematography, which is kind of opposed to Schrader’s typical style, but the night scenes are just gorgeous at times and the blues absolutely pop. Lachman is probably best known for his long-running collaboration with Todd Haynes, from Far From Heaven to the recent Dark Waters.
Schrader is undoubtably a boomer, so he wanted to use some ’80s Bob Dylan songs for the score. He had made a video for Dylan, so they knew each a tiny bit. Basically, the script specified five songs from his Empire Burlesque album to act as the third voice of John, but Dylan was like “you can have five songs for free, but not those five,” and Schrader’s response in a nutshell was “fine, Bob, I won’t use any of your songs”. Somebody suggested Michael Been from The Call, who basically wrote his own versions of the same songs to soundtrack the film. But no matter whose music he would’ve used, it dates the film considerably, and is the big flaw of an otherwise excellent film.
Light Sleeper remains one of Schrader’s most satisfying films as a director, and is the missing link between Taxi Driver and First Reformed. It won’t have the lasting power of those masterpieces, but it should always be in the discussion when it comes to Schrader. Indicator, which has already released Schrader’s first two films as a director—Blue Collar and Hardcore—has created a package that is equally loaded with extras. The commentary track from Schrader was recorded in 2002, but as far as I can tell was never released; the selected scene commentary with Dafoe and Sarandon was used instead in European territories, it seems. Willem Dafoe did a career retrospective NFT talk in 1998, which serves as an alternative commentary track. Schrader has been interviewed—socially distanced in his backyard in upstate New York, it seems—and goes through the history of the film and its relationship to his other work. A 2008 Schrader and Lachman Q&A in Brooklyn is also included. Mark Cousins, who is a lovely man, nevertheless does an insufferably pretentious tribute to the film, of which he was a huge champion of at the time, I wish his excellent Scene By Scene interview with Schrader was included instead (shots from it are in the short), but I can imagine there might have been some rights issues. The trailer, a stills gallery, and a booklet with new and archival writing finish off the excellent release.