Edgy characters lurk in limousines, low dives and laudromats as a drugs courier contemplates his wasted life.
The man tossing and turning on a mattress in his empty apartment is John LeTour (Dafoe), a craggy-toothed drugs courier who has turned 40, stopped using the product, and is in the grips of that species of urban angst familiar from such earlier Schrader protagonists as the Taxi Driver and the American Gigolo. While Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle has psychotic rage and richard Gere's Julian Kay could fall back on Armani narcissism, the much quieter LaTour has run out of options, what with his boss, (Sarandon) threatening to quit cocaine dealing and set up a cosmetics company, plus a tangle of broken family and romantic ties, a few half-mentioned murders that have taken place in his circle of clients, and his own admission that drug-dealing doesn't "exactly have a pension plan, you know".
As in Taxi Driver and American Gigolo, there is a thriller plot - don't trust that urbane drugs-buying Swiss diplomat - but it's very much subordinated to Scrader's eerie ability to creep into a convincing netherworld where urban sleaze meets self-torturing religion. There are disconnected scenes - LeTour buying a gun in a bar, a cokehead ranting about the unknowability of God in front of a wall of his old albums - that finally add up to a grand letour of limbo, rather than the straight-to-hell trip of Taxi Driver.
LeTour is constantly a few jumps behind in dealings with ex-girlfriends, clients, cops, doomed junkies and killers as he heads for the requisite violent, but still perplexing, finish. If Schrader were french or Swedish, he'd be an art filmmaker, but he's an American, and his terms of references, to scuzzy real life New York and the conventions of gangster movies, force him to work in the mainstream.
Sarandon is especially strong as the queen dealer, suggesting in her hungry look and brand-name outfits a portrait of Taxi Driver's non-lunch-eating producer, Julia Phillips, while Dafoe, Christ for Scorsese and Schrader, dominates the film completely. If he isn't De Niro or Gere, that's because things have scaled down, but his performance is no less masterful. Recently, Schrader's career has been as aimless as LeTour's - remember Cat People, Light Of Day, Patty Hearst and The Company Of Strangers? - and it's a pleasure, although hardly reassuring, to see one of the most intelligent and challenging filmmakers returning to his top form.
This doesn't have the high style that made Taxi Driver or American Gigolo instant cultural icons - although Schrader shows more than a few traces of Scorsese as his camera creeps- perhaps because it's concerned with a chilly 90s that looks back with a sort of nostalgia on the cocaine-fuelled craziness of earlier years. But it does develop powerfully the themes of Schrader's earlier work and will not disappoint his fans.