Wide-Awake `Sleeper'

XXX "Light Sleeper," with Willem Dafoe, Susan Sarandon, Dana Delaney, David Clennon, Mary Beth Hurt and Victor Garber. Written and directed by Paul Schrader. Varsity. "R" - restricted, due to violence, mature themes. --------------------------------------------------------------- Drawing a straight line from Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" to his own "American Gigolo" and now "Light Sleeper," writer-director Paul Schrader has blended personal history with thematic fascinations to become our cinematic link to the alienated loner, the disaffected, initially passive outsider trapped between self-preservation and a desperate need for spiritual awakening.

Schrader's directing career ("Blue Collar," "Cat People," "Mishima," "Patty Hearst," "The Comfort of Strangers") has been decidedly uneven compared to his acclaimed scripts for Scorsese, which also include "Raging Bull" and "The Last Temptation of Christ." But with "Light Sleeper," Scrader seems to have found the emotional connection that has been lacking in his recent work. Even when it treads on the director's familiar ground, this intriguing character study has the look and feel of a highly personal and carefully crafted work of obvious importance to its creator.

Set in present-day New York (coincidentally, on Labor Day weekend), the film gives Willem Dafoe the role of his career thus far, playing John LeTour, a good-natured, 40-year-old washout who delivers drugs for Ann (Susan Sarandon), an upscale dealer who is preparing to go legitimate with an herbal cosmetics business. With their gay, sarcastically witty partner (David Clennon), they're a trio of aging love children, having survived in the business since the '60s (for which they are dreamily nostalgic), relying now on a straight, New Age consciousness to combat the ugliness of crack cocaine, which is chasing them out of their once peaceful trade.

LeTour feels further pressure from a police crackdown on dealers following a recent drug-related murder, just as he's reunited with Marianne (Dana Delaney), his greatest love, now recovered from her drug days and wanting nothing to do with their once intensely coke-fueled relationship.

If this all sounds like a sordid variation on "Sid and Nancy," don't be fooled. Schrader, with the priceless assistance of cinematographer Ed Lachman, has designed an often beautiful and nocturnally hypnotic landscape for his protagonist, whose mid-life crisis urges him to transcend his old identity. Serving as narrator like "Taxi Driver's" Travis Bickle, LeTour is an urban ascetic, keeping strange lists ("People whose eyes don't match") and realizing with surprise that "I can be a good person."

Dafoe completely inhabits the character, appearing in virtually every scene and developing a fascinating psychological profile. Equal parts saint and destroyer of lives, he's a pale ghost and a minister of good will, and Dafoe never loses the balance that allows us to care if he lives or dies. (In contrast, Delaney's role is a bit bland.)

Schrader's balance isn't always as steady, and when LeTour locks horns with a Swiss client (Victor Garber), the tragic results seem melodramatically forced, and the violent climax instantly recalls "Taxi Driver," without that film's explosive inevitability, or even dramatic necessity. It's exciting, but this bloody act of cleansing plays less like the truth and more like a director paying homage to himself.

There's much to compensate for that forgivable sidetrack. Schrader's dialogue ranks among his best, and Sarandon chews up her delightful role with infectious, boldly confrontational relish. And for a director whose films have often been bleak and almost clinically detached, "Light Sleeper" presents Schrader in a new and philosophically redemptive light. In doing so the film fully adheres to the New Testament quote from which it takes its title: "Behold I show you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed."