NEW YORK — IT'S hard to say whether Paul Schrader's new movie, "Light Sleeper," marks a new direction or a dead end in his career.
On one hand, it's among the most thoughtful and mature films he's ever made. On the other, it rehashes themes and situations that he first explored years ago and might have outgrown by this time. I find it a touching and stimulating piece of work, but others may consider it stale and un-original - and there's enough truth in this charge to make "Light Sleeper" a difficult picture to defend.
The main character is John, a veteran drug dealer who retails dope obtained from a couple of well-to-do suppliers. What sets him apart from most movie-style druggies is a growing awareness that this sort of life is pointless, foolish, and wrong. He's just turned 40, and almost despite himself, he's growing up.
This isn't an easy position for a drug trafficker to find himself in, and it gets even harder when he runs into Marianne, a former lover. Once as deeply involved in the drug scene as John, she has conquered her dependence and stayed clean for several years. But new pressures are confronting her, including a grave illness in her family, and it isn't clear she can continue to resist temptation.
John wants to leave the drug world by entering a legitimate business with one of his suppliers, and to resume his relationship with Marianne on a higher and more adult level. First, however, he must clear the slate with his current associates - and dodge the attentions of a cop investigating a drug-related killing in John's territory.
Outlined like this, "Light Sleeper" sounds like melodrama with a clever twist. Yet, the movie aims higher, reflecting Mr. Schrader's longtime interest in philosophical and even spiritual issues of guilt and salvation. Although his work has lapsed into sensationalism more than once - the hysterical "Cat People" is an example - it's also true that he started his career with a book on spiritual values in cinema, and that pictures like "Light of Day," which he directed, and "The Last Temptation of Christ," w hich he wrote, touch on undeniably deep concerns.
"Light Sleeper" follows this pattern. For one thing, the story centers less on John's illicit behavior than on the pangs of conscience and urges toward redemption that increasingly influence his life. In addition, Schrader piles a lot of symbolism into the movie, lest we miss the points he's trying to make. When a character succumbs to temptation, for instance, it happens in an apartment building called Grace Towers - and the character's subsequent death (by falling to the sidewalk below) is announced by
the words "Fall From Grace" in a newspaper headline.
This isn't exactly subtle, but it certainly adds depth and interest to what might otherwise seem an ordinary thriller. Also commendable is the story's earnest emotional tone, which has an unusual sincerity and sobriety. When people die in this movie, funeral scenes and times of mourning are allowed to follow - quite a rarity in Hollywood pictures, where death usually means nothing but a quick scramble to the next violent uproar. This aspect of "Light Sleeper" gets reinforcement from superb acting by Will em Dafoe, in the most sustained and intelligent performance of his screen career, and Dana Delaney, resolutely real and convincing as Marianne.
LIGHT SLEEPER" takes its biggest risks near the end, in the shootout that climaxes the story and the prison scene - suggesting that salvation must be sought outside the snares of the everyday world - that concludes it. In these scenes, Schrader refers directly to plots from his earlier career, especially the indelible "Taxi Driver" and the problematic "American Gigolo," which was itself heavily influenced by Robert Bresson's masterpiece of philosophical cinema, "Pickpocket."
Even admirers of Schrader may feel he plunges into outright self-imitation here - and that he plagiarizes himself in other elements of "Light Sleeper," too, such as the hero's loneliness and fondness for keeping a journal. I'm impressed, though, by the consistency Schrader demonstrates in continuing to mull over concerns that have woven through his work for years. Bold and reactionary at the same time, "Light Sleeper" isn't likely to fare very strongly at the box office. Still, it's a fascinating picture
to think about, and that in itself is worth a nod of approval.
* Rated R; contains sexuality and violence.