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MOVIE REVIEW : Schrader’s ‘Sleeper’ Dives Into Dangerous Waters

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Transcendence is a tricky business, and in “Light Sleeper” (selected theaters) writer-director Paul Schrader doesn’t quite catch it. Yet he comes close. This grimly meditative saga of a drug-runner’s inevitable collision with fate is, like almost all Schrader’s work, rich, complex, brainy, mysterious. It dives into dangerous waters, plunges into the icy, savage dark and swims toward a strange luminescence: that eerie redemption toward which Schrader often reaches.

A thriller with theological underpinnings, “Light Sleeper” is loaded with style: lucid acting, haunting images and a wonderfully ominous score by Michael Been, thrumming like the fuzz tone of fate. And its subject is almost cruelly ambitious: the collapse of the ‘70s-'80s high-style drug culture, as distilled into one man’s frenzied pilgrimage.

This central character, John LeTour (Willem Dafoe) is a Manhattan cocaine deliveryman with a sleazy-elegant clientele. He travels in a limo, constantly in touch with his boss and buyers through a phone beeper, cruising the dirty streets, bistros and luxury apartments, including some stripped bare to feed a coke habit. Moving between underworld and daylight, he maintains the same crisp composure whether a crazed customer flips out or a cop works him over.

LeTour is a man outside, descended from two other Schrader outsiders, night rider Travis Bickel in “Taxi Driver” and male hooker Julian in “American Gigolo.” Like them, he’s a near fantasy figure of anti-heroic alienation, maintaining a curious purity and distance in a world of all-pervasive corruption. With his spartan quarters, non-drug use and Camus-like diary, he stays apart from the orgy whose appetites he helps feed. He’s the “light sleeper” of the title, always in a state of fine-tuned anxiety.

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Around him, the world is collapsing. His boss, sexy drug mama Ann (Susan Sarandon), is getting out and opening up a line of herbal cosmetics, and the police are cracking down because of drug-related murders. At 40, he’s caught in the machinery of chance, heavy with impending doom and awful failure. Repeatedly, nightmarishly, he keeps meeting the woman he apparently loved most, Marianne (Dana Delany), who now regards him as agent of her destruction.

In choosing this subject, Schrader isn’t indulging a taste for sleaze. He’s charting the dissolution of a pleasure-obsessed society, waking up in cold daylight. Yet, in conceiving LeTour, he partially falls into a trap. Just as Robert Towne made coke dealer Mel Gibson a bit too romantic/heroic in “Tequila Sunrise,” Schrader’s LeTour is too sweet and selfless; like Howard Da Silva’s moralistic bartender in “The Lost Weekend,” he oddly lectures his customers on abuse.

Where is the street toughness that kept LeTour alive and out of jail all these years? The character veers toward abstraction, the plot toward symbolism. Dafoe, who has genuine Dostoevskyan potential--he could probably play Prince Myshkin, Raskolnikov or any of the Karamazov brothers--is an ideal actor for a mixed saint-sinner quality. But Schrader only draws the saint and the hell; he doesn’t give Dafoe his devil’s due.

That’s why Sarandon walks off with this picture. Her character is comic, lusty, magnificently at home. In a way, Ann is a cliche, the golden-hearted whore, and her flabbergasting conversion from cocaine to herbal cosmetic mere social symbolism. But Sarandon gets to indulge in humor, sarcasm, bawdy high spirits; use her sumptuous wit and bat her maternal eyes.

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“Light Sleeper” has a mixed saint-sinner quality of its own. The thriller conventions clash with the art-film style. The recurring references to Robert Bresson’s great “Pickpocket” seem--as they did in “American Gigolo"--strained, and the redemption smacks of another theatrical deus ex machina.

In fact, Schrader often works like a man speaking in several languages at once; that may be why his best movie is still the multicultural, many-angled “Mishima.” Yet “Light Sleeper,” with its cool, critical view of life on the edge, is no film to dismiss or ignore. It’s a failure perhaps, but an honorable failure. If it isn’t saved by grace, it has many saving graces.

‘Light Sleeper’

Willem Dafoe: John LeTour

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Susan Sarandon: Ann

Dana Delany: Marianne

David Clennon: Robert

A Mario Kassar presentation, released by Fine Line Features. Director-screenwriter Paul Schrader. Producer Linda Reisman. Executive producer Mario Kassar. Cinematographer Ed Lachman. Editor Kristina Boden. Costumes Giorgio Armani. Music Michael Been. Production design Richard Hornung. With Mary Beth Hurt. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.

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MPAA-rated R (language, violence, sensuality).


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