Many of these August ’92 movies I’ve been reviewing have been grueling, but there are some good ones among them, even great ones. To make up for the toil of watching CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS: THE DISCOVERY and LITTLE NEMO, August 21, 1992 also brought us Paul Schrader’s LIGHT SLEEPER. It was the filmmaker’s first time writing and directing since 1987s’ LIGHT OF DAY (though he’d directed PATTY HEARST and THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS and written THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST since then). And it’s up there with his best work.
The troubled journal-writing outsider this one centers on is John LeTour (Willem Dafoe, WILD AT HEART), a New York City drug deliverer who’s having a bit of a crisis because his boss Ann (Susan Sarandon following THELMA & LOUISE and a cameo in THE PLAYER) seems pretty serious about starting a cosmetics company and going straight. He’s 40 and this has kept him going in the four years since he kicked drugs and he doesn’t know what he’s gonna do with his life. He has an idea about getting involved in recording music, but I’m not sure how realistic he thinks that is.
For now his job involves going out to meet with weirdos at odd hours, hang out with them and put up with their shit. Either he’s good at making friends with these people or very professional about faking it. Or in some cases he doesn’t have to fake it because they’re not gonna notice. I’m thinking specifically of the philosophizing douche in his underwear played by David Spade (who was on Saturday Night Live, but movie-wise had only been in POLICE ACADEMY 4: CITIZEN’S ON PATROL). I have to wonder if that scene inspired Fred Savage’s cameo in THE RULES OF ATTRACTION.
This screengrab reminds me how most of the characters in this movie have big messy shelves crammed with books and records. John has stacks of CDs on the floor (plus a whole bunch of empty wine bottles, but that’s a separate matter). I relate to these piles. Even in the digital age some of us are still like that, for good and/or ill.
Another one of John’s regulars is some rich banker guy (Paul Jabara, 9 1/2 NINJAS) he worries about, has to cut off, even calls a relative for help, like an intervention. Not that that makes it ethical to sell him coke. I like the arguments, the guy threatening to go to Ann, John saying she’ll back him up. “I want to talk to the manager!”
The parts where he’s at the head office with Ann and her right hand man Robert (David Clennon, THE THING) make it seem like kind of a fun lifestyle at times. She loves to buy everybody food from different restaurants, has an accordion file of takeout menus (alphabetical by country, I believe). It’s the rare drug dealer movie where you can trust the boss. She’s not some psycho, and she hates guns. When some thugs pull on her she knocks them out of their hands like an old lady swatting a kid with her purse. She’s less threatened by the guns than offended they would involve her in “this macho shit.”
(The man responsible apologizes and says “they were for emphasis.”)
This is pretty random and I only thought of it because of the part where she has an I Dream of Jeannie ponytail, but working for Ann seems kinda like working for Madonna in TRUTH OR DARE. She’s generous with them and treasures them as friends, they love her, will do anything for her, and are very experienced dealing with her eccentricities. She’s into new age shit, preaches about chemicals in food (ironic for a drug dealer, of course). John sort of laughs it off, sometimes takes advantage of it – when he needs her to go way out of her way to stop at his apartment he lies that he needs his “lucky jacket” and she says “Oh. Okay.” But also it rubs off on him. He starts visiting a psychic (Mary Beth Hurt, D.A.R.Y.L., DEFENSELESS) with increasing desperation.
I don’t know if this is authentic or not but I like that the psychic just dresses and acts like a therapist and has a normal office. No crystal balls or any of that bullshit. Similarly, John just doesn’t seem like the type of menace you normally see in a cinematic drug dealer, nor the nice-guy-in-over-his-head type. He seems pretty relatable – a guy with issues he’s trying to get through, doing a job that’s probly not good for him but that has its benefits as well.
As in most of Schrader’s directorial works, the mood is critical. So much of it is riding silently in the back seat of a car at night. The opening is one such scene, set to a song about “It feels like the world’s on fire.” All the songs by Michael Been (not to be confused with Michael Biehn) have this brooding night time ballad quality that made me think of Miami Vice and other Michael Mann joints – different from Schrader’s Giorgio Moroder soundtracks, but similarly important for the overall tone of the movie. It was interesting to hear that he intended to use all Bob Dylan songs (Dylan was gonna give them for free, but they disagreed on which songs would work). That seems like a completely different feeling to me.
In the opening scene there are lots of garbage bags stacked along the streets, which made me think of today, with various Covid chain reactions making it pretty routine for things like garbage pick up to fall apart now and then. It’s mentioned that there’s a sanitation worker’s strike going on (“garbage strike,” he calls it) and throughout the movie the bags pile up higher and higher, as his problems do the same. It’s a brilliant visualization of the tension in the movie.
I haven’t really even hit on the central event, which is randomly running into an ex named Marianne (Dana Delany, previously in Schrader’s PATTY HEARST). They haven’t seen each other in years, she’s back in town, is hesitant to talk to him. We soon understand that they were once together, but it was when they were both drug addicts. She left and got clean and straightened up her life, doesn’t believe him when he claims he has too, then peaces out when she realizes he’s still dealing.
But he encounters her a second time when he’s doing drug dealer shit at the hospital and bumps into her sister Randi (Jane Adams, VITAL SIGNS), who seems to assume he’s there for support as their mother is dying. After some objections Marianne walks with John to the cafeteria and talks to him. I like this visual gimmick that they’re having a nice conversation and then when it turns uncomfortable the angle flips 180 and the column looks like a wall between them.
(Cinematographer: Edward Lachman, ORNETTE: MADE IN AMERICA.)
They have these intense feelings about each other, Marianne’s more negative than his, so they hash out some arguments from the past, but also remember what they loved about each other. John especially seems to see a chance to fix a past wrong, make a better choice, find that future he needs. And she’s torn between temptation to be with him and a deep fear of how it could fuck up everything she’s worked for.
SPOILER: I’m sorry to tell you this is a tragic fucking movie, so this sincere act of trying to rekindle an old flame will be catastrophic, and he’s gonna feel like that famous roadside attraction The World’s Biggest Piece of Shit, knowing if he just left her alone none of this would’ve happened.
But anyway, there’s a part where they have a passionate tryst and he ends up late for work and is in the dog house because it’s that busiest part of the year when they deliver drugs to attendees of the UN Conference. Navigating that work-life balance can be hard.
These are really great performances. Dafoe (in the first of many collaborations with Schrader) is such an interesting face to look at throughout this movie – such a mix of beautiful and strange. And I love that he plays this character without overt darkness. He’s very troubled, he makes some bad decisions, but he just comes across as a sincere, well-meaning guy. I empathize with him more than see him as a cautionary tale.
And Delaney is outstanding – Marianne is this woman who seems to have taken control of her life, but it turns out she was just standing on the edge, waiting for a push. Heartbreaking. I was also really impressed by Adams, who sees her sister’s ex John different from how her sister does and sees her sister different from how John does. Really captures that dynamic of the relative of the ex who has nothing against you but it’s still weird to catch up.
I also want to mention that Victor Garber plays a creepy client named Tis, just because he played Jesus in GODSPELL, so I wonder if he discussed that with LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST star Dafoe. And Sam Rockwell (TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES) appears in one scene wearing this crazy Germany jacket:
Don’t worry, it doesn’t go uncommented on. John compliments him on it at the beginning of the scene.
I love that Schrader has this format that he does over and over again – a guy in some specific job/lifestyle sits at a desk and writes a journal that’s also used as narration, and then at the end he goes to jail and someone comes to visit him in an homage to PICKPOCKET – and it’s not even one of those trademarks like John Woo’s doves or something that people make fun of him for. It’s just very upfront – yes, this is my story, I do variations on it, that’s how it works. Having a rigid formula like that as the skeleton only makes the variations more important. It’s like a haiku. It’s gonna be this many syllables every time, but that’s part of the beauty of it.
Schrader was in his mid-forties when he made this one, had been sober for only a few years, and according to a Q&A included on the blu-ray had been trying and failing to come up with “a metaphor for a mid life movie.” He had basically given up when he had a vivid dream about a drug dealer he used to know named John. So he tracked down the real guy, talked to him about his life, and wrote the script in 3 or 4 weeks. If there’s one thing I learned from this movie it’s that people who kicked drugs shouldn’t spend time with their old dealer friends, but I appreciate what Schrader accomplished by breaking that rule in this case. I hope it didn’t mess him up.
LIGHT SLEEPER was executive produced by Mario Kassar (FIRST BLOOD, TOTAL RECALL, T2, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER) and released through Seven Arts Pictures (a joint venture between Carolco and New Line Cinema) and Fine Line Features, New Line’s “specialty films” division that also put out THE PLAYER and NIGHT ON EARTH that summer. Those are some pretty good specialty films, huh?
Despite its low budget, LIGHT SLEEPER was a money-loser. In that opening weekend LETHAL WEAPON 3 was in its 15th week, came in 14th place at the box office, and still made more than LIGHT SLEEPER’s entire theatrical run. Who cares? It’s a great movie.
Also released on this date was my personal favorite Brandon Lee movie, RAPID FIRE. It did pretty good, opening in third place behind UNFORGIVEN and SINGLE WHITE FEMALE, and they were talking about a sequel when Lee died – man, what could’ve been. I already reviewed RAPID FIRE back in 2009, but was planning on returning to it for this series – in fact, I’ve been meaning to do that for years. But since I’m rushing to finish before October and it doesn’t really fit into my “Weird Summer” theme I’m going to set RAPID FIRE aside to return to in the near future when I can give review #2 the time and consideration it deserves.
For now let’s just respect it as arguably the summer’s best action movie, and definitely the only one where a guy pulls out a drawer full of silverware and throws it at someone.
September 28th, 2022 at 12:22 pm
I saw this back when I was a wee young film snob in high school, and thought it was great, a slow-burn, vibey mood piece with a terrific Willem Dafoe performance at its center.
Twenty-some years later, I don’t disagree with that assessment at all. But two things stand out which I didn’t pick up on back then:
First, the movie is a pretty amazing time capsule of early 90s NYC, where coke-addled 80’s stragglers are still plentiful, but the hangover has already begun in earnest for most people. Bits of extravagant fashion are still around, but the dress has clearly begun to shift towards dour, loose-fitting swaths of indistinct fabric, and the national mood has shifted towards the distinctly 90’s mopey alienation of the main character. That adds an interesting texture I’d never have guessed at when watching it just a few years after its original release.
Second, though I could, as a teenager, identify with the angsty ennui of Dafoe’s pushing-40 drug courier in a general way, I feel like I now understand his dilemma (and therefore the movie) much more deeply than I did back then. Now that I’m closer to his actual age, it means more that this is not just a vibey portrait of general modern alienation, it’s a very specific, if lightly abstracted, portrait of a particular kind of person in a particular kind of despair. “John LeTour” (implied not to be his real name) isn’t so much an adult as he is a ghostly echo of a wild youth, a James-Dean-esque kid who decided to buck the system and cast in with a cadre of drug-dealing party people, only to find himself the only one still around 20 years later, long after the party is over.
It’s not so much a movie about angst, then, as stagnation; about finally being forced to make a choice after aimlessly coasting until you don’t even recognize familiar surroundings anymore. The film’s ongoing motif of mountains of garbage building up on the streets during a sanitation workers’ strike is not exactly subtle, but it’s a unique and vivid metaphor for John’s own baggage that he’s neglected for years. It is, I suppose, on some level a quintessential mid-life-crisis movie (Schrader was 45 when he made it), but the weird specifics of the situation and its ghostly, uncertain tone twist the standard middle-age ennui into something much more interesting and evocative. And I appreciate that although it’s technically a crime movie, the drama is more emotional and personal than the threat of violence, although that’s always lurking around the edges. It’s a movie which is liable to become distracted gazing at an elaborate mural on a restaurant wall, barely remembering to pull itself back to the characters interacting there. Like its protagonist, it often doesn’t seem quite sure what’s it’s doing or where it’s going next, but that turns out to be a benefit, allowing the drama, when it does come, to feel looser and less forced. I like it. I always thought this movie was good, and now I think it’s even better than I gave it credit for. May that be said of any of us who are closer to our 40’s than our 30’s and still have no idea what comes next.