“Non Ho Sonno”… Paul Schrader’s LIGHT SLEEPER Reviewed.

BD. Indicator. Region B. 15.

His intense Calvinist visions having inspired the likes of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and John Flynn’s Rolling Thunder (1977) then a run of self-directed efforts from Blue Collar (1978) to Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters (1985), Paul Schrader knocked off a few pictures as a hired gun before returning to a more personal style of film making with Light Sleeper (1992). He envisaged this neat Neo Noir as his “midlife movie”, in which the protagonist would gain some self insight, turn his life around and attain a degree of transcendence. Nobody familiar with the director’s earlier work will be surprised to learn that the protagonist is a coke dealer, nor that his moment of transcendence is achieved during a bloody shoot out rather than in any moment of meditative reflection. Perhaps Schrader wanted to show up-and-comers like Abel Ferrara (whose Bad Lieutenant was released in the same year) that they still had a thing or two to learn about absolution and atonement, fate, free will and the whole ethical nine yards…

Although his literary pretensions are going nowhere, John LeTour (Willem Dafoe) seems to living a pretty sweet life. Having kicked his own coke habit, he spends his time supplying to various upmarket addled losers (memorably including David Spade as “Theological Cokehead”, droning on about the Ontological argument for the existence of God) and raking in their cash for himself and his narco partners Ann (Susan Sarandon) and Robert (David Clennon). He’s long accepted that coke wasn’t doing him any good but the penny is starting to drop that it’s not doing any of his customers much good either and when his activities connect his ex-wife Marianne (another apparently reformed addict played by Dana Delany) and Victor Garber’s smoothy scumbag Tis, the clock’s ticking down on that climactic bullet fest…

This picture was built around a suite of five songs by Bob Dylan, for whom Schrader had directed the video clip Tight Connection To My Heart in 1985. Dylan (and I’m cutting a long story short here) subsequently let him down about the tracks so he commissioned five similarish songs on similar themes from the Christian rocker Michael Been (not to be confused with the actor Michael Biehn) and the new numbers do work pretty well, though perhaps recalling the work of Leonard “Chuckles” Cohen more than that of Bobby the Zee.

Schrader rarely gets sufficient credit for the performances he almost invariably get out of his actors, though of course casting thesps as accomplished the ones assembled here is half the battle. Dafoe keeps you on side right through his redemptive journey (and it’s nigh on impossible, as usual, to take your eyes off Sarandon), even if the script (as Schrader freely admits in the bonus materials) gets a bit heavy handed at times, littered with clumsy taking out the trash metaphors and falls from grace. The director has confessed to watching a lot of Antonioni before making Light Sleeper, though it looks like DP Ed Lachman was bingeing on other Italian auteurs, saturating The Big Apple in Bavian / Argentoesque gels. The niche architectural nooks and crannies of New York City have never looked this infernal since… well, since Inferno (1980).

Another UK Blu-ray premiere for Indicator, limited to 3,000 copies, this disc also packs the expected slew of extras, including Schrader’s audio commentary and 18 minutes worth of Dafoe and Sarandon commenting on selected scenes. Schrader (pictured above) talks about the film and its place in his CV during an 18 minute interview. I’m always glad to hear him acknowledge Cat People from 1982, a big favourite here at THOF but often overlooked by snottier assessors of his oeuvre on account of it being a (shudder) Horror Film. In fact its Noirish urban vibe jibes beautifully with that of Light Sleeper. We’re also privy to an interview that Schrader (mostly) and Lachman gave on-stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, after a screening of the film. There’s an archival audio recording of Dafoe in conversation with Guardian critic Jonathan Romney at the NFT. I suspect that “Dear Paul Schrader, Thank You for Light Sleeper” , a new ten minute short from Mark Cousins will prove to be a Marmite proposition, which is to say that you might like it a whole lot more than I did. As well as the obligatory trailer and image galleries, if you buy quickly enough, you’ll get a 36-page booklet including a new essay by Christina Newland, Kevin Jackson’s archival on-set report for Sight and Sound, an overview of contemporary critical responses and full credits.

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