Now I will admit before watching the film I expected a rather different film and performance for that matter with Willem Dafoe playing a drug dealer in a film written and directed by the Taxi Driver's scribe. The name of Light Sleeper even seems to evoke the idea of perhaps a similair insomniac to Travis Bickle slowing going insane in the underbelly of Manhattan. Well that's not the case, the film and Willem Dafoe's performance are far more low key than that. Dafoe here portrays actually a man who is sort of past that phase that probably would have been similair to Travis Bickle. In that we meet his John LeTour after he's no longer a drug addict, and is wanting to escape his life, only staying in it through his by appointment only drug dealing through his supplier Ann (Susan Sarandon) who isn't your typical drug kingpin. John goes on specific assignments to wealthy clients creating a different sort of man of the night. Dafoe's work keeps this in mind and establishes this history of another life in his presentation of who John LeTour is as well when we follow him from one appointment to the next.
Willem Dafoe gives a very quiet performance to the point I will admit to being a bit taken aback by it for a bit as I was watching it. However Dafoe's approach is with purpose. There's a wear in his portrayal of John's demeanor, a wear of the past more even so than his current occupation. When he visits to make some of the deals, there's a certain exasperation not over the act of dealing the drugs entirely, but rather this disengagement with the behavior he once took part in. The idea of the history as a junkie himself is shown in that basically straight resistance to interaction, and even lack of patience with the more aggressive customers. He does not stare them down as just a man who hates, there is a self-loathing within his eyes in these moments, and a forcefulness to be as detached from that as he can. Of course he is technically stuck due to the easy money associated with his life even though this is often a detached life, where again Dafoe portrays that distance. That distance that is not only the suggestion of the past, but also a certain professionalism as the drug dealer.
In his scenes of dealing Dafoe portrays an efficiency and precision in his straight and direct delivery. Dafoe portrays the right awareness as he is not doing it as a junkie anymore, and always carries himself with that certain watchfulness, making his ability to spot when being trailed by an undercover cop convincing. Of course this is not the story of the successful drug dealer, as this isn't the life John wants still. I actually love the scene where we see how this really isn't John, despite his success, in the scene where he confronts the cop. Dafoe begins as the one in charge, seemingly this master of the streets as he prods the badge from the cop. The cop though turns this around pointing out that he's well aware of John's activities which he blackmails him with for information on a murder. Dafoe's terrific as he reveals such a vulnerability and the real guy that John as in the moment, who really isn't any sort of professional criminal. Dafoe crumbles so effectively by losing any confidence, and just revealing the desperation of a man in place he really should never have been in.
We naturally see John trying to escape the life a bit through his old girlfriend, Marianne (Dana Delany), though this is corrupted since they met each other originally as junkies. Now I will admit there is a bit of a problem here because of Delany's performance, who is a better voice actress than actress. This is oddly enough shown here as her line deliveries are very good, but her physical performance is very stilted. Luckily there is Dafoe to pick up the slack. Dafoe is surprisingly affecting in these scenes because he portrays so earnestly. He shows only genuine care in every moment for Marianne and her family. Every moment he depicts only wanting a healthy relationship, and Dafoe finds such a poignancy in the purity of these scenes. This even extend to John purely platonic relationship with Marianne sister Randi (Jane Adams). Those moments I particular love as Dafoe portrays such a palatable warmth realizing John as almost this caring older brother as he offers his support to both sisters as their mother is dying.
Nothing is forgotten easily though for John, as Marianne continues to reject him due to their past, and Dafoe's great in portraying so simply the considerable yet subtle anguish within John as he keeps being kept in his place in the drug world. Of course the drug world is not entirely bleak through his relationship with Sarandon's Ann. The two actually share a splendid chemistry which is basically established just through the way they interact with each other early on. You can sense the attraction and love for one another, in just their silent language towards one another, though they remain employer employee for much of the film. Eventually a tragedy happens that forces all hands in a way, and Dafoe is excellent in the last act of the film. This begins with his two heartbreaking reactions to seeing the tragedy, its initial beginnings, then its end, again Dafoe remains pretty internalized yet so powerfully so. This continues as he seeks a sort of revenge, and again Dafoe stays quiet. He does so effectively though as he conveys just the passion, and pain in this through his eyes. His final act, which is Travis Bickle like in action is not Bickle like in the emotion behind it. Defore portrays not a psychotic reaction, but rather again presents that same earnestness warmth actually in the act of violence. I found this to be a rather wonderful performance by Willem Dafoe, in granting a humane and moving depiction of a drug dealer.