“A D.D. told me when a drug dealer starts writing a diary, it’s time to quit,” thinks John LeTour (Willem Dafoe) as he watches the black-plastic mountain range of New York’s unclaimed garbage blur past his backseat window. “I started writing after that.”
Tour, as his friends call him, is old enough to lie about it, if “John LeTour” is even his real name. Despite his best efforts, the past is all he has. The journals he shouldn’t be filling up get thrown out as soon as they’re full. He swears the faces of his clients are all the same but knows one regular well enough to call his brother for an intervention. Nostalgia is an occupational hazard for dealers, yet Tour is only at home among the city’s collectively trashed memories, camouflaged against the bags in his best black leather.
Reality is split all the way down the middle in Light Sleeper. No faith or evidence, but credit and cash. No heaven or hell, but night and day. No god or devil, but luck and fate. Night brings clubs and penthouses and seductive neon. Day brings hospitals and funeral homes and cheap sunglasses. In the dark, everything seems to happen for a reason. When Tour spots Marianne (Dana Delany), the codependent that got away, on the side of the road in a midnight downpour, it’s a sign. In the light, everything is chaotic coincidence. When his first customer of the afternoon warns him about cops hassling dealers over an underage O.D. in the headlines, it’s just a bad forecast.
Not that Tour pays much attention to the writing on his naked apartment walls. His long-time boss, Ann (Susan Sarandon), is giving up the business to try her hand at cosmetics, legitimacy. When she asks him, point blank, what he’ll do after she retires, he reminds her they had the same conversation two years ago. No need to consider the future when the past is still piled up at the door. Even as a psychic proves herself a genuine seer and warns him about a coming betrayal, Tour treats her like a therapist and asks only about luck. Deep down, he knows the party’s over – one particular journal entry notes that once upon a time he was the same age as his clients – but he doesn’t want to turn the lights on yet.
Willem Dafoe is a monument to old vice, his face a worn-out comedy mask occasionally stretching like it used to with eyes that can’t take the act anymore. The film’s greatest act of intimacy isn’t sex, but Dana Delany leaning across a cafeteria table to see if Tour’s pupils are dilated. It’s the only way she’ll believe him. It’s the only truth he has left. In one look, Dafoe and Delany lay out everything these people miss about each other and can only live without. “A convenient memory is a gift from God,” she says, diagnosing him better than any psychic, killing him where he sits.
Writer-director Paul Schrader considers Light Sleeper the end of his “man and his room” trilogy, after Taxi Driver and American Gigolo. In a contemporary interview with Filmmaker, he admitted the progression was autobiographical: “The character has gotten older as I’ve gotten older. When he was in his twenties he was angry. When he was in his thirties he was narcissistic. And now he’s forty and he’s anxious.” That speed differential could be why Light Sleeper hasn’t been dusted off and dissected like its counterparts. All of the later-in-the-day characters are coasting, one way or another, toward dawn or dusk. It’s not ultra-violent. It’s not ultra-chic. It’s the only movie of the three not named after a romanticized line of work. Dafoe claims that’s because Drug Dealer didn’t have a ring to it.
Whether or not that’s true, Schrader found his replacement in the first book of Corinthians. Chapter 15, verse 51: “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed.” It means Armageddon, an ending only insomniacs like Tour will see coming.
The music tries to warn him. After rejecting songs from Bob Dylan’s Empire Burlesque, Schrader turned to musician Michael Been, who already knew him and Dafoe from playing the apostle John in The Last Temptation of the Christ. The resulting soundtrack is a soft rock death march of sacrificial drum machines and mourning guitars. It haunts Tour, the perfect ghost for a man with nothing to his name but a boombox and recording of his ex’s away message. The lyrics are never less than literal: as Tour walks into the lobby of his final deal, Been narrates, “Now to seal my fate, now to step inside.” The effect is disconcerting, maybe even annoying for certain viewers. But in this nocturnal world of good-time vampires who can’t admit the sun’s coming up, it’s nice to hear a little honesty now and again.
As Tour writhes through another sleepless night on his bare mattress, Been dreams for him: “I don’t think you’ll recognize me on the other side of day.” God, if only.
“Light Sleeper” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.