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A Man Apart: Close-Up on Paul Schrader’s “Light Sleeper”

Paul Schrader’s 1992 film is a mood piece on New York loneliness, probing the deeply serious question of how to live a life.
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Paul Schrader's Light Sleeper (1992) is showing June 9-July 9, 2018 in the United States.
In the opening sequence of Light Sleeper a man played by a pale-faced yet sleekly handsome Willem Dafoe is being chauffeured through the New York night. Beyond the windows of the car the lights of the city and traffic pass by reflecting on his impassive face, oversized piles of garbage litter the sidewalks and puddles of rainwater line the streets. He sees it all without touching it. On the soundtrack plays an achingly moody song with the line: ‘I trust my life in providence, I give my soul to grace.’ We don’t need the credits to tell us that we are in pure Paul Schrader territory: a man apart sheltered in a car at night, separated and shielded from the world.
The man’s name is John LeTour; he is a drug dealer out making his nightly deliveries. He is the progression of a character that Schrader first conceived of with Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976), and continued to build on with Julian Kaye in American Gigolo (1980), together the three incarnations of this character making up what Schrader has called his ‘man in a room’ series. (And has continued since then with The Walker and First Reformed.) All three are lost souls, alone and adrift in their own life on the periphery of society. But whereas Travis is a lonely nighttime New York cab driver in his mid-twenties with some serious homicidal tendencies and Julian a high rolling charmingly narcissistic male escort in his thirties in a sickeningly glossy Los Angeles, John is a white collar drug dealer in his forties caught up in the midst of a mid-life crisis. His anxiety about the future stems mainly from the fact that his supplier and friend Ann, played with much aplomb by Susan Sarandon, is quitting the business to go into cosmetics, thus putting his livelihood at risk. Everyone is too old to be doing what they’re doing. The glamour of the drug culture indulged in with such abandonment in the 1970s has given way to a nineties hangover wherein it’s time to get out. The party is over. Even the New York we see here has lost those fevered, saturated colors of Taxi Driver, with its alluring sleaze of Times Square with its prostitutes and illuminated 24-hour dirty movie theaters. No, in Light Sleeper we have clinical penthouses, gaudy decorated drug dens, once exquisitely furnished turned messy addict pads, tiny Midtown hotel rooms drenched in steely blue-green light all populated by insomniacs, loners, and druggies. The only locational set piece similar to Taxi Driver, aside from the primacy of the vehicle, not to mention the bountiful visual homages in the way that car is shot, is John and Travis’s apartment: sparse, ascetic, severed from the personal. John, like Travis, spends his time after work writing a diary: confessions of a man alone in a room, if you will.
John too is a kind of voyeur who drops into other people’s lives on a nightly basis for as long it takes to complete a transaction, his customers share scraps and pieces of their lives that he stores and takes with him wherever he goes. (Some of the things he hears are in fact quite humorous, such as a totally coked-out David Spade expositing on the ontological proofs for the existence of God.) The dark clothes and long scarf that John wears resemble the garb of a priest hearing confession. Note his last name LeTour: a tourist who travels in other people’s lives but does not have his own. John LeTour is a quintessential Schrader creation: a man (they’re always men) searching for a new ground to put underneath his feet, to achieve a point of existence from where things can move forward. As in Taxi Driver and American Gigolo, Schrader is operating in direct lineage to probably his most important film mentor, Robert Bresson, especially his film Pickpocket (1959), yet as always transposing the Bressonian spiritual quest to an American urban setting and refracting it through the prism of the crime genre. Like the petty thief Michel in Bresson’s film, Schrader has elevated a standard villain, in this case a drug dealer, to a figure in a search for grace and redemption. ‘The search’ here is not presented, though, through religious symbolism or a move towards a literal conversion of faith, but rather is channeled through countless allusions to superstition, luck, and chance. Ann, for example, appears to practice astrology, and John himself pays a visit to a psychic who warns him of troubles ahead. Two chance encounters with an ex-lover and recovering drug addict named Marianne makes him believe that she is his salvation. (Another nod to the Bresson film, only here the consequences are fatal.) In theory, the story is a path well-trodden, with all of the plot signposts clearly glimpsed from afar: a man wants to escape his life of crime, reconnects with old flame, conflict and resolution swiftly follow. But Schrader’s goal is different: his picture is more a mood piece on loneliness, a probing of the deeply serious question of how to live a life.  
John, himself a recovering addict, is a passenger in life, forever lodged in the backseat while those around him move ahead, a person without any fixed connections. It is a figure—that of the passenger disengaged from the world—that is instantly recognizable, not only from the works of Schrader, but also from cinema all over. Think, for example, of the two lonely men, Bruno Winter and Philip Lander, in Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road (1976),driving along the German-German border fixing old cinema projectors; Jack Nicholson in Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975),slowly drifting through Europe trying to become nobody; or a more recent example in the films of Christian Petzold, all of whose works, The State I Am In (2000), Yella (2000), and Jericho (2008),to name a few, deal in peripheral characters who are both present and not, who are more like ghosts floating through an anonymous Germany trying to establish a life. John LeTour would find good company amongst these wanderers, all of whose goal it is to transition from a passenger to a pedestrian, or at least to no longer to be a captive of one’s own isolation. And Dafoe is perfect at inhabiting this nomad figure, seamlessly slipping into LeTrou’s skin: something about Dafoe’s lankiness and slow gait; his languorous and subdued movements; the way he sits at the back of the car, eyes cast down, or the way hehuddles shirtless, skin paper white, in his apartment writing in his diary: ‘I just walk and walk.’ Throughout the film there are visual cues illustrating John’s separateness—for example, during one of the encounters between him and Marianna at a hospital, wherein they are spatially separated by a pillar.  And of course there is the car, the visual metaphor par excellence for alienation. That John’s ambulatory existence is brought to an end is itself no surprise: that has been the direction of the film from the opening moment we saw him in the car. Like Bresson’s Pickpocket (and American Gigolo) the man in a room is in prison, yet that is where he finally experiences what has been absent all along: a moment of human touch. 
Hope to see all of the Man in a Room films on MUBI someday! LIGHT SLEEPER is such an underrated gem and this piece touches on a lot of what makes it special.

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