Now that addiction and intervention have become mere fodder for basic-cable reality shows, you might think there’s nothing new to say on the subject. But in his powerful new film “Keep the Lights On,” director Ira Sachs (who co-wrote with Mauricio Zacharias) takes us on a brutal and unflinching journey through a relationship that is irrevocably shaken by drugs.
The film begins in 1998, with filmmaker Erik (Thure Lindhart) scoping out a gay hook-up phone line in search of some anonymous companionship. He winds up meeting Paul (Zachary Booth), whose blandly handsome appearance and respectable white-collar job as a lawyer at a publishing house hide some secrets.
On their first meeting, after they’ve had sex, Paul mentions that he has a girlfriend and probably won’t see Erik again. When they get together a second time, Paul smokes crack. The two eventually become a couple, but addiction is an ever-present specter; even when Paul isn’t messed up, he’s emotionally immature. It’s clear that neither Paul nor Erik knows the basic rules of communication and arguing that keep any couple afloat, and Paul’s habit of disappearing on benders for days at a time doesn’t make matters any better.
Time passes, and Erik wins awards for the documentary he’s been working on for years, but Paul keeps backsliding, entering rehab and then relapsing. What makes “Keep the Lights On” more interesting than your average addiction story is the subtle suggestion, as the relationship continues, that Erik’s dependence on Paul and his messes is just as debilitating as Paul’s taste for drugs. In one unforgettably disturbing scene, Erik sits in a hotel bedroom, while Paul smokes crack and has sex with a hustler, in the hopes that Paul will come home once this encounter is over.
The film has a late ’60s/early ’70s feel (from the occasional sun flares on the camera lens to the strikingly pale presence of Lindhart, who looks like the love child of New Wave Euro-stars Oskar Werner and David Hemmings), particularly in its casually unflinching portrayals of sexuality and drug use. Sachs doesn’t underline and italicize those moments that some viewers might find shocking; to the contrary, he nestles them onto a soft bed of sad, minor-key music by the late great Arthur Russell.
Lindhart’s performance feels like a revelation: The Danish actor has a long list of credits on both sides of the Atlantic (his U.S. films include “Into the Wild” and “Angels & Demons”), but his work here draws us in, even after the audience has had a chance to be repelled by the situations and even the characters. The film never makes Erik the innocent victim of Paul’s problems, and Lindhart’s turn keeps us glued to the screen despite our temptation to look away.
“Keep the Lights On” is a movie that assumes that its audience is mature enough to handle not only intense situations but also subtle storytelling; so much of what we learn about the characters themselves, and about their relationships, is revealed in tiny moments and semi-audible asides. This is the kind of intelligent and powerful drama that’s a harbinger for the autumn movie season, and it raises the bar for the other grown-up movies soon to follow in its wake.