This review was originally published on January 27, 2012, as part of Film.com's Sundance 2012 coverage.
The opening credits of Ira Sachs' semi-autobiographical "Keep the Lights On" are populated with portraits of naked men, sometimes together, sometimes alone, all set to a folk song. At any given point, the subjects seem lonely, lovely, haunted, happy, and the same can be said of how the film approaches the characters to come.
It's 1998, and Danish ex-pat Erik (Thure Lindhardt) spends his days in New York making documentaries and his nights hooking up with strangers, one of whom is Paul (Zachary Booth). "Don't get your hopes up," he warns on their first meeting, mentioning a girlfriend, but when Erik and Paul become an item, the girlfriend isn't as big a problem as Paul's crack habit.
We're then treated to the peaks and valleys of their relationship over the course of nine years, often corresponding with rehab and relapse on Paul's part. The film is based on Sachs' own experience with a partner facing drug problems, but it makes for a somewhat monotonous narrative in which the audience is constantly left waiting for the same shoe to drop once things start going too well.
There's a pervasive compassion inherent to Lindhardt's performance, yet as Erik holds Paul's hand in the midst of intercourse with some john, it's hard to not wonder why he couldn't have used those caring hands to wrestle the pipe away in the preceding scene. As a love triangle between two men and one's drug habit, "Lights" can grow a bit tedious; more curious, though, is the implication that Erik is — to quote the ever sage Robert Palmer — as addicted to love as Paul is to crack, forced to fend off loneliness even when heavily invested in an occasionally reciprocated romance.
Hardly a scene goes by without Paul where Erik isn't with family, friends or former flames, pining for something sturdier, and as our anchor throughout, Lindhardt is consistently decent, clearly pained, and passionate without ever eliciting a much deeper, more profound sympathy for his quixotic-at-best dedication in the face of addiction (though he knocks a single scene in which he's trying to determine HIV test results right out of the park). Booth is likewise good, though limited by the essentially bi-polar conditions of his behavior. Solid, though infrequent, female support comes by way of Paprika Steen and Julianne Nicholson as Erik's sister and best friend, respectively.
It's a film from a gay filmmaker, moodily scored by the work of a gay musician (Arthur Russell), about a gay filmmaker who makes documentaries about other gay artists (Avery Willard). There's little doubting the sincerity that Sachs is bringing to "Keep the Lights On," and bless him for eschewing melodrama in favor of tenderness, but his characters are often left adrift in a sea of conflicting emotions, and as such, the heartache hardly hits home.