The film, set in New York City, shows the tragic events following the encounter of a 40-year-old drug dealer and his former girlfriend.
John LeTour, a 40-year-old New Yorker, is one of two delivery men for Ann, who supplies an exclusive clientele in the banking and financing sector with drugs. While Ann contemplates switching to the cosmetics business, LeTour, who suffers from insomnia, has lost his perspective in life.
One night LeTour meets his former girlfriend Marianne, with whom he once shared an intense but destructive relationship due to drug abuse. Although they stopped taking drugs, Marianne refuses his offer for a new start. After spending one night together, she tells him that this was her way of saying good-bye. Unbeknown to Marianne, her mother died at the hospital while she was with LeTour. The next time he meets Marianne, she attacks him, demanding that he get out of her life once and for all.
Meanwhile, the police start observing LeTour because one of his clients, Tis, is connected to the drug-induced death of a young woman. On his next delivery, LeTour witnesses a heavily drugged Marianne in Tis' apartment. Only minutes after his departure, she falls several stories to her death. LeTour gives the police a lead to Marianne's last whereabouts. At the wake, Marianne's sister Randi tells him not to feel guilty for what happened.
When Tis orders a new supply and insists that LeTour delivers it, he senses that Tis wants to dispose of him. Ann accompanies him, but Tis' guards force her to leave the room. In the subsequent shootout, LeTour kills Tis and both of his henchmen, but is left critically wounded. He lies down on the hotel bed, showing no anger or pain, only a profound weariness, as police sirens can be heard in the distance.
Ann visits LeTour in jail, where he expresses his hopes for a better future. The film hints at the possibility that Ann will wait for him.Willem Dafoe as John LeTour
Susan Sarandon as Ann
Dana Delany as Marianne Jost
David Clennon as Robert
Mary Beth Hurt as Teresa
Victor Garber as Tis Brüg
Jane Adams as Randi Jost
Sam Rockwell as Jealous
David Spade as Theological Cokehead
Schrader has described the film as a "man and his room" story like American Gigolo and his most famous screenplay, Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, and in this case his character dealing with anxiety over his life and the external forces that threaten it. Light Sleeper also shares with American Gigolo an ending patterned after Robert Bresson's Pickpocket in which the imprisoned hero is shown contemplating a new and hopefully better existence.
The movie was still in the process of fundraising when the date of production start, which Schrader had given to stars Willem Dafoe and Susan Sarandon, arrived, so Schrader financed the first three weeks of pre-production from his own money. Light Sleeper was the first artistic collaboration of actor Willem Dafoe and director Paul Schrader, who met during filming of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. Dafoe and Schrader continued working together in Affliction (1997), Auto Focus (2002), The Walker (2007) and Adam Resurrected (2008).
Schrader had originally intended to use songs from Bob Dylan's album Empire Burlesque, but both men could not agree on which songs to use. Schrader decided to use songs by Michael Been instead.
Light Sleeper premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 1992 and was released in the US on August 21 the same year, earning $1 million at the box office. It gained mostly positive reviews and received various nominations, including the Independent Spirit Award. Willem Dafoe was awarded the Sant Jordi Award as best actor. In a telegram, German filmmaker Wim Wenders congratulated Schrader, stating that his direction was in a league with that of Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu, who both Wenders and Schrader admire. In a 2005 interview, Schrader called Light Sleeper his most personal film, and even ranked it number 11 on his list of favourite films of the 1990s.
Light Sleeper received positive reviews from critics, as it holds an 89% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 35 reviews.
"Schrader knows this world of insomnia, craving and addiction. And he knows all about people living in a cocoon of themselves. […] In film after film, for year after year, Paul Schrader has been telling this story in one way or another, but never with more humanity than this time." – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
"[…] a small but absorbing mood piece […] even when the film doesn't gel, one is held by Willem Dafoe's grimly compelling performance." – Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
"[…] stylish film noir […] But the story meanders, and it echoes Taxi Driver and American Gigolo so closely that Schrader is working less than fresh variations on over-familiar themes." – Geoff Andrew, Time Out Film Guide