Carl Bernstein never wrote his version of Heartburn, but 2012 has seen two works of art from both sides of a failed relationship, and one whose members are familiar only amongst élite circles. The rocky, passionate stint shared by filmmaker Ira Sachs (Forty Shades of Blue) and literary agent Bill Clegg was already documented earlier this year, when the latter released the memoir Ninety Days: A Portrait of Recovery. Clegg’s account focused primarily on his nine-year crack addiction, where Sachs’ version, the relationship saga Keep the Lights On, goes the other way: It’s about a relationship that slowly succumbs to a habit.
Sachs was last seen with 2007’s Married Life, a splashy, star-studded faux-indie as generic as its title. Almost as if in defense, Lights is as specifically about Sachs: Leads Erik (Thule Lindhardt) and Paul (Zachary Booth) are, respectively, a filmmaker and a Manhattan literary agent. Their trajectory is technically the stuff of cliched drama: White-hot love is disrupted by Paul’s deepening drug habit, and soon Erik’s unfailing love starts to resemble an addiction of its own.
The midfilm transformation into an art film version of a TV Movie of the Week does let out a little of the air in what has been a loose collection of memories, some nicely unimportant (a surprise birthday party, the occasional sex scene). But Sachs and his actors put up a strong fight. Even after Paul is in throes to crack, Lights remains oblique and ellipsis-heavy, with unannounced narrative leaps. Big scenes in a typical drug drama—shouting matches, teary pleas, benders—are underplayed, and the majority of Paul’s degradation is kept off-screen. When we see him, Booth radiates a confident, Cillian Murphy-like smirkiness that throws us off, while Lindhardt has an unkempt, gap-toothed boyishness that never quite hardens.
They’re both unpredictable performances in a film that struggles, and usually succeeds, in the uphill battle against type. Every time Lights starts to seem like a paint-by-numbers addiction tale, the more Sachs fights back with specifics—about his life, about gay life. The use of songs by Arthur Russell serves both as a reminder of New York’s rich gay history and as a soothing palliative to a story that could always be even more harrowing.