Wonderfully acted by Thure Lindhardt and Zachary Booth, Erik and Paul are instantly recognizable as people most viewers will already know.
Few journeys are as painful to watch as the destruction that is wrought on a relationship by the unrelenting grip of drug or alcohol addiction. From cable shows like Intervention to films like Requiem for a Dream and Leaving Las Vegas, the havoc that comes with substance abuse acts as a bizarre form of entertainment and (hopefully) a deterrent for anyone who could potentially face the same struggle.
Keep the Lights On examines how drug addiction is able to slowly destroy a relationship, masquerading, at first, as a harmless activity, but eventually becoming an all-encompassing act that defines both partners. Erik (Thure Lindhardt) is an up-and-coming Manhattan filmmaker who has begun raising funds for his new documentary so he doesn’t have to rely on his wealthy father for financial backing. When not working on his film, Erik spends time on phone sex lines, hoping to meet up with other men in the city who are looking for a no-strings-attached encounter. One of the men he meets is Paul (Zachary Booth), a closeted gay man who works as an attorney at Random House.
After a second encounter, Erik and Paul begin dating, having discovered a strong connection with one another. Paul is open about his sexuality (except in front of his ex-girlfriend) and he and Erik become serious, eventually living almost exclusively at Erik’s apartment. Paul has another secret, though. He smokes crack recreationally, mostly before he and Erik engage in any sexual activity. As the years pass, Paul’s drug use becomes more and more common, affecting not only his relationship with Erik but his career, as well. Erik is a loyal companion and tries to help, but irreparable damage is eventually done to them both.
Director and co-writer Ira Sachs brings out the reality of what Erik and Paul endure by purposely shedding nearly all conventions of filmmaking. The film itself looks like it was captured using a VHS camcorder, which is fitting, considering the story begins in 1998 and unfolds through the early part of last decade. While most directors trying to imitate reality opt for handheld camera work, Sachs instead keeps his camera very steady, avoiding editing whenever possible. The result is quietly revealing scenes that are much more intimate than the faux-realism many independent filmmakers strive for.
Wonderfully acted by both Lindhardt and Booth, Erik and Paul are instantly recognizable as people most viewers will already know. Erik starts out as a dreamer, floating through his career with little more than a vague direction as to where he would like to go. Paul grounds him both through his more pragmatic approach to life and the need Erik develops to take care of him. Soon, Erik is throwing himself into his work to deal with/avoid what is happening at home.
Lindhardt’s performance is absolutely heartbreaking from beginning to end, as we watch him first as someone desperately trying to connect with another person on a physical level, and then later struggling to connect with his partner on an emotional level. As an actor, Lindhardt’s greatest strength is his face, which can make him appear as either boyishly coy or world-weary and tired.
Keep the Lights On is a powerful and painful film that will resonate with audiences for a variety of reasons. With a long line of predecessors having come before it, it is one of the most mature and heartbreakingly real portrayals of the monstrous results of drug addiction. | Matthew Newlin