Light Sleeper Blu-ray Review
In Paul Schrader's Light Sleeper, John LeTour (Willem Dafoe) has reached middle age, suffers bouts of insomnia and frets about the future. His job often finds him wandering the dank rubbish strewn New York sidewalks at night, dropping off packages of cocaine to affluent clients – sometimes their luxury pads are a far cry from his own dingy minimalistic apartment. LeTour works for small-time dealer Ann (a strong Susan Sarandon), who has has treated him well over a long association. We follow him as he blankly visits numerous customers and acquaintances, some of whom are decidedly strange, while others are desperate for what he can provide – watch for an early appearance by Sam Rockwell in a small role as the intriguingly named Jealous.
This arrangement is about to end, as his tough talking boss has decided that it is time to go straight and move into the fruitful business of cosmetics. As much as LeTour has grown to dislike his profession, he cannot see himself getting drawn into the world of almond face creams, so sees this as a signal to make a more positive change in his own life. As he observes in an early scene, “when a drug dealer starts writing a diary, it’s time to quit. I started writing after that”. Dafoe’s recurring voiceover reveals all those thoughts and anxieties that his character feverishly scribbles down, convinced that he can become a better person - if only he can find some direction in life.
A chance encounter with ex-partner Marianne (Dana Delany), still the love of his life, offers LeTour further hope. He longs to revive their relationship, but she is fearful of a return to their old volatile way of life and, having been clean for 4 years, is afraid of becoming an addict once again. These key scenes are well played, providing emotional clout, with Schrader’s skill at writing sharp dialogue coming to the fore.
With his distinctive raspy voice and visage once described as “craggily characterful”, Dafoe is terrific as the edgy loner seeking redemption. Light Sleeper marks the first of 6 collaborations between the versatile actor and writer-director Schrader. This was a project that Schrader struggled to get off the ground, with no major studio interested, but he boldly pressed ahead anyway before independent funding was in place.
The soundtrack has rocker Michael Been frequently singing over pivotal moments. In one sequence LeTour is shown dousing himself in cheap cologne in readiness for a tense confrontation, which is accompanied by a loud rendition of “World on Fire”. The lyrics are intended to underscore chapters in LeTour’s journey, used more sparingly the music certainly adds mood, but here becomes a little too excessive.
There are glimpses that LeTour can show a more compassionate side, though there are also continual indications that severing links with his disreputable past may not be so easy - an inquisitive detective is never far away. The risks are further emphasised through LeTour’s regular visits to his uncannily accurate psychic Teresa (Mary Beth Hurt). When she advises him that “there’s danger around you…it’s very close”, it is inevitable that things are destined to a take a much darker turn. It is regrettable that the film then heads into such familiar territory for Schrader, besides that there is much to recommend in this compelling drama.
Light Sleeper makes its UK debut on Blu-ray courtesy of Powerhouse Films, forming part of the Indicator Series (limited to 3,000 units). I can confirm that the disc is region “B” locked.
Sourced from Studiocanal’s HD remaster and presented in the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, image quality is spotless, boasting plenty of fine detail, with excellent levels of contrast and deep blacks.
Audio is presented in the original mono, with dialogue well-defined throughout. New and improved English subtitles are included.
In terms of supplementary material, this UK edition is superior compared to an earlier barebones disc released in Australia during 2018 by Umbrella Entertainment (the only other HD disc of this title readily available). An impressive selection of extras includes:
Audio commentary with writer and director Paul Schrader (2002). Selected scenes commentary with actors Willem Dafoe and Susan Sarandon (2002, 18 mins). The Guardian interview with Willem Dafoe (1998, 66 mins): archival audio recording of the actor in conversation with critic Jonathan Romney, recorded at London’s National Film Theatre.
The Midlife Movie (2021, 18 mins): Paul Schrader remembers the production of Light Sleeper. He talks about how changes in the industry lead him away from the major studios and making movies independently, along with the difficulties attached in raising finance. Schrader explains how use of music in this film was intended to provide LeTour with a further voice. It is revealed that he originally wanted Bob Dylan to provide the score. However, Dylan would not allow use of the desired tracks, offering alternatives that were deemed inappropriate. When negotiations broke down, The Call’s Michael Been was drafted in to provide the music instead. Schrader also talks about his style of filmmaking and collaborating with gifted DoP Ed Lachman.
The BAM Interview with Ed Lachman and Paul Schrader (2008, 31 mins): the cinematographer and director in conversation on-stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, after a screening of Light Sleeper
Dear Paul Schrader, Thank You for ‘Light Sleeper’ (2021, 11 mins): a personal meditation on Schrader’s film from the critic and filmmaker Mark Cousins
Original theatrical trailer (1:56) – a little too revealing, so it is advisable to watch the film first.
Image gallery: promotional and publicity materials
Exclusive 36-page booklet (first print run only): with a new essay by Christina Newland, an archival on-set report for Sight and Sound by Kevin Jackson, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and film credits.
Fans of Schrader may also want to check out 2 other titles also available from Powerhouse Films in standard editions: Blue Collar, his assured directorial debut featuring Richard Pryor in a rare dramatic role and Hardcore, which boasts a powerful turn from George C. Scott as a businessman searching for his missing daughter.
Light Sleeper is available to own on Blu-ray from January 25.