based on the
Kevin Bacon (Sean Nokes)
Billy Crudup (Tommy Marcano)
Robert De Niro (Father Bobby)
Ron Eldard (John Reilly)
Minnie Driver (Carol Martinez)
Vittorio Gassman (King Benny)
Dustin Hoffman (Danny Snyder)
Terry Kinney (Ralph Ferguson)
Bruno Kirby (Shakes' Father)
Jason Patric (Lorenzo)
Brad Pitt (Michael Sullivan)
Brad Renfro (Young Michael)
MPAA rating: R
U.S. release: October 18, 1996
Video availability: VHS - DVD
reviewed on this website:
Carcaterra's "nonfiction" bestseller Sleepers
reads like a movie, which may be why (A) its veracity has been
questioned and (B) a film version is almost unnecessary. Here
we have the story of four Hell's Kitchen boys who go to reform
school, endure months of torture, and grow up to be haunted men
who take revenge on their tormentors. Perfect movie material.
Yet the movie Barry Levinson has made from it feels less true
and vivid than Carcaterra's snappy prose. For one thing, when
you watch it as a movie, you can't help recalling other movies
that did it better. The Hell's Kitchen footage is right out of
GoodFellas (cinematographer Michael Ballhaus shot both
films). The reform-school stuff is Shawshank Redemption Jr.
The climactic trial is John Grisham. And so on. The film makes
Carcaterra's story seem as fake as his detractors say it is.
After a stupid prank that hospitalizes an old man, the boys are
sent to Wilkinson, a notoriously harsh institution. The neighborhood
priest, Father Bobby (Robert De Niro), is an alumnus of Wilkinson
and knows what happens to boys who land there. But he's powerless
to stop the guards, led by the sadistic Nokes (Kevin Bacon in
full sicko mode), from beating and raping the boys routinely.
Cut to fifteen years later, 1981. The nightmare lives on in the
memories of the boys, now grown men. The Carcaterra character,
nicknamed "Shakes" (Jason Patric), works at a newspaper.
The other three men are on different sides of the law: Michael
(Brad Pitt) is a DA, while John (Ron Eldard) and Tommy (Billy
Crudup) are swaggering hit-men. One night, John and Tommy happen
across the now-broken-down Nokes in a bar. This coincidence,
and the swift vengeance that follows, feel so unlikely and movie-ish
that it might actually have happened this way.
John and Tommy are arrested, and Michael takes the case against
them. Yes, you read correctly. Michael and Shakes hatch a plan
to get their friends off and put Wilkinson on trial. They hire
inept lawyer Danny Snyder (Dustin Hoffman) to act as the pair's
defense. Hoffman and De Niro are fine individually, but I wish
Levinson had let them share more screen time; there are exactly
two fleeting shots of these legends together in the same frame.
with De Niro and Al Pacino, made the same mistake.)
I didn't believe the trial in the book, and I don't buy it in
the movie. What court would allow lawyers to throw a trial so
blatantly? Michael is supposed to be pretending to prosecute
his friends, but I lost count of how many times he should have
yelled "Objection" just to keep up appearances. (Does
the title refer to the judge and jury?) I also found myself thinking
(which I didn't when reading the book) that, even before their
murder of Nokes, John and Tommy were cold-blooded hit-men --
presumably guilty of killing many other people who were not
leering child-rapists. Shakes and Michael (and probably Father
Bobby) endured the same abuse. They didn't become killers.
The point of Sleepers might be to show us why. But almost
everything in it, true or not, plays as a cliché. Barry
Levinson does a competent job, but he works best with material
that isn't necessarily the stuff of movies, like Diner.
There's not much he can do with Sleepers. It was a better
movie as a book.