After Martin Scorsese transformed his superb screenplay for Taxi Driver into an even better motion picture—one of the most hypnotically beautiful cinematic experiences ever committed to celluloid—Paul Schrader became a great director in his own right, in many ways exemplifying the “Movie Brat” generation better than Scorsese himself (though this doesn’t necessarily make him the better filmmaker). His impressive career has produced several overlooked masterpieces, including the tense class drama Blue Collar (which features excellent performances by Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto, and Richard Pryor) and the hallucinatory biopic Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. He also churned out a misguided reimagining of Val Lewton’s classic chiller Cat People and the well-received but way-too-Eighties American Gigolo—hey, they can’t all be art.
Even as his storytelling voice gradually developed and changed over the years, Schrader frequently revisited Taxi Driver; films such as Rolling Thunder (as writer) and Hard Core (writer/director) attempt to recapture/reevaluate the ’76 film’s theme, mood, and “character,” but none of the spiritual successors approaches the subject matter quite as directly as Light Sleeper. While this 1992 Willem Dafoe vehicle functions well enough as a self-contained tale, it becomes difficult to view it as anything but the silver screen equivalent of Marvel’s comic book series What If…?: “What If Paul Schrader Had Directed Taxi Driver?”
Though he is a competent filmmaker, Schrader’s brilliance as a writer outshines his ability as a director. He tends to emulate his three idols: Yasujiro Ozu, Carl Theodor Dreyer, and especially Robert Bresson. These men rejected excessive stylistic flashiness, instead allowing their stories to unfold with a sort of quiet dignity. Schrader likewise favors simple, smooth, fluid tracking shots to reveal narrative information and convey his characters’ emotions. But while his “mentors’” relatively simple plots warranted such understatement, Light Sleeper—driven as it is by sex, drugs, and murder—demands the greater visual flair and energy an artist like Scorsese might provide. Without such authorial aggression, Light Sleeper frankly lacks the sense of urgency Taxi Driver so elegantly communicated.
While Taxi Driver and Light Sleeper share many fundamentalsimilarities—voiceover narration framed as journal entries, a failed attempt to “rescue” a female love interest, a shockingly violent climax—they are driven by two vastly different protagonists. Dafoe’s character, reformed drug dealer John LeTour, is about fifteen years Travis Bickle’s senior—years which have made him wiser and more compassionate. Travis sees sin everywhere he turns; LeTour looks inward, recognizes his own flaws, vows to repent. Travis seeks redemption by making it his mission to punish the wicked, turning a gun on New York City itself; LeTour finds redemption in helping those less fortunate than himself—reconnecting with his bitter ex-wife, literally kicking one of his more self-destructive clients into rehab, etc. Schrader leaves some room for moral ambiguity—does LeTour sincerely care about his customer’s wellbeing, or does he fear the legal implications of a drug related death?—but stops short of the ethical complexity he examined in Taxi Driver. We like LeTour, root for him, sympathize with him, but he never inspires the same perverse fascination, the same discomfort, the same terror as the more enigmatic and unpredictable Travis. LeTour would make a lovely dining companion, but Travis challenges the viewer. That is what makes Taxi Driver the more enriching and memorable experience; that is the reason Light Sleeper, regardless of its own quality and worth, will always live in its predecessor’s shadow.
[Originally written March 15, 2012.]