I made it all the way through "Light Sleeper" because I love Willem Dafoe as an actor. If you don't share a similar appreciation for the man, then you might not want to spend an hour and 41 minutes with a film that is as conceptually flawed as this one.
The script, from Paul Schrader ("Taxi Driver," "Rolling Thunder") is decent enough. The narrative hook of the story - a mid-level drug dealer looking to get out of the business before it kills him - is compelling if you're not bored to tears of drug movies (what's nice is that this doesn't really deal with the addiction aspect like so many others do).
But there's one thing that really holds "Light Sleeper" down every time it tries to take off, and that's the music. This is a shining example of how a bad soundtrack can ruin a decent movie.
Dafoe spends a good 70% of this movie riding in the back of a black sedan
or walking the streets of New York
The musical instrumentation itself isn't bad: low-key jazz numbers with synth pads and bass to color the sights of a neon-lit, early 90's New York City. But for some reason, Schrader went and hired a vocalist, Michael Been, to sing over the music. Been was the guitarist/singer for an 80's band known as The Call. Here he sounds like a bad Bruce Springsteen impersonator hired to do an even WORSE impersonation of Leonard Cohen.
The lyrics are relentlessly overwrought. While the script is low-key enough to keep the characters' emotions internalized, the music telegraphs everything like an airplane message written in the sky.
Dafoe in repose
What would have merely been a scene of William Dafoe walking the streets of New York alone at night becomes unbearably pretentious when the singer groans lines like, "My inner demons tear me apart/rip my soul through the night/as I walk alone/I'm on my own/oh yeah/I'm the walking dead."
It gets even worse during the romantic moments. And you know because this is a Willem Dafoe movie not called "Spider-Man," he has to show his ass.
"Remember that night/when we made love/and I looked in your eyes/and I saw the stars above/oh yeah/How do we get back there?" It doesn't help that every melody sounds like the vocalist is just waiting to burst out into Cohen's "Hallelujah."
Dafoe's backside is like Harvy Keitel's junk - you just know you're gonna see it
If you can someone get past the offensively bad soundtrack, the movie is certainly watchable. It attempts to be what I assume is a fairly realistic take on dealing drugs. Dafoe plays the kind of "DD" who only associates with clients his supplier has a relationship with - these are upscale people with high-rise apartments; you know, the club-going and jet-set type.
He's rarely in danger of having a gun pulled on him or being shivved in the back; he's never out on the streets, dealing smack to kids. It's not that kind of film, which is actually a nice change of pace.
I think Patrick Bateman tried to reserve a table a this club
Unfortunately, the movie does not live up to the talents of Paul Schrader. When things do build to a moment of ominous violence, as they often do in Schrader movies, it honestly feels like the director is merely going through the motions. There's no climactic build like in "Taxi Driver" or "Rolling Thunder," it's more like Schrader felt like: "Well, it's a movie set in the world of drug dealing, I guess I've got to have some people get shot at the end."
A subplot (that honestly goes nowhere) about a drug-related serial killer feels similarly tacked on and haphazard.
Don't fuck with Dafoe!
Dafoe's character is just not that interest outside of the fact that it's Dafoe playing him. His face is a striking canvas of expressions which are used to great effect throughout the movie, but do we really care about the man that's behind him, Johnny LeTour? Not really. Same goes for Susan Sarandon as Dafoe's supplier, who is now looking to start a respectable cosmetics business.
These are just regular folks who got into the drug business because they thought it'd be an easy way to make tax-exempt money. It turned out to be just that, a business, and they didn't do as well as they'd hoped…but haven't done anything to change their circumstances until now, way late in the game.
Why the smirk, Willem? You're not thinking about
showing your ass in this movie, are you?
The central question is: can people change? After spending at least half his life either doing drugs or dealing them, can Johnny LaTour make a break for it and become legit? And what kind of line of work is a drug dealer qualified to do after they go straight?
But there's nothing particularly interesting about these folks. The only real relatable aspect to Dafoe's character is his relationship with his ex-wife, played by Dana Delany. Dafoe clearly still cares for her and wishes that they could start over and rekindle their romance, but considering that she treats a well-meaning Dafoe like shit for 90% of the movie it's hard to root for them to get back together.
What a lovely early 90's haircut you have there, Ms. Delany
"Light Sleeper" has enough things going for it: an immersive look at New York City nightlife in the early 90's, some fantastic lighting, and Dafoe in fine form. Dafoe's limited voice-over narration provides fascinating insight into the world of a drug dealer. But the film provides none of the darkness or sense of imperativeness of Schrader's other works.
A scene where Dafoe is having his aura read by a physic who warns him of imminent danger and betrayal only rings false; despite his line of work, we never really get the sense that Dafoe's life is threatened. There's no sense of urgency, no reason to care, other than the fact that Willem is a great actor. You add a terrible score to the proceedings and the whole deck of cards just collapses in on itself.
You'd think that after watching his own movie, "Taxi Driver," Paul Schrader would have realized that Bernard Herrmann's score perfectly translated his characters' emotional landscapes onto the screen…instead of relying on a piss-poor Leonard Cohen wannabe to broadcast all the meaning of the film. Sadly, that was not the case here and it's (part of) what prevents "Light Sleeper" from being anything other than a watch for die-hard Schrader or Dafoe completists.
Warning: you may feel like this after watching "Light Sleeper"
if you don't keep your expectations in check.
Paradoxically, this film might help cure insomnia if you have it