Sleepers (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Robert DeNiro. Dustin Hoffman. Brad Pitt. Jason Patric. Kevin Bacon. Minnie Driver. With a talented cast like this, it's virtually impossible to envision a bad movie, and, in that regard, Sleepers doesn't surprise or disappoint. This is easily Barry Levinson's best effort of the decade, and it helps to erase the bad taste left by his early-'90s mega-flops Toys and Jimmy Hollywood. Despite protests from the Catholic Church (which whines about any movie that portrays priests as anything less-than-pure), Sleepers, which represents two and one-half hours of gripping entertainment, is well worth the price of admission.

The movie is about revenge and redemption, and how, in America's darkest social corridors and backalleys, the two can be inextricably linked. It's also a condemnation of a criminal justice system that allows innocence to be callously destroyed. Yet, even though Sleepers is basically a vigilante motion picture, it exists on a much higher plane than something like Death Wish, which offers a least common denominator, visceral satisfaction. There's little thrill in watching the vengeance extracted by the protagonists of this film because Sleepers approaches its subject with a conscience. The movie's moral compass is Robert DeNiro's Father Bobby, a Catholic priest who recognizes that friendship and loyalty can require sacrifices of the soul, but who doesn't tread lightly across the line separating what's legally correct from what's ethically mandated.

In fact, Father Bobby's dilemma is arguably the most compelling aspect of Sleepers' second half. The film's sluggish final hour is its weakest portion, but there's still enough there to maintain audience interest. We've spent a long time with these characters, and we're not about to abandon them because Levinson doesn't move things as smoothly to the climax as we might prefer.

Sleepers, which may or may not be based on a true story (the author of the novel, Lorenzo Carcaterra, isn't doing interviews these days), spans fifteen years. Much of the action transpires in New York's Hell's Kitchen, which stretches from 34th to 56th Street west of 8th Avenue to the Hudson River. During the film's era, the neighborhood was ruled by two vastly different powers: the mob (represented by gangster King Benny, played by Vittorio Gassman) and the Catholic Church (represented by Father Bobby). Every child learned to respect both, and live by a simple creed: never commit a crime against someone else in the neighborhood. Such offenses were not permitted; the people of Hell's Kitchen looked after one another.

The film opens in 1966 by introducing us to four inseparable friends: Lorenzo (Joseph Perrino), Michael (Brad Renfro), John (Geoffrey Wigdor), and Tommy (Jonathan Tucker). Like most boys, they're curious about sex, enjoy playing stickball, and have an appetite for pranks. One such practical joke, gone horribly wrong, changes their lives. When their theft of a hot dog vendor's cart nearly causes a man's death, Lorenzo and his friends are found guilty of reckless endangerment and sent to the Wilkinson Reform School. There, under the watchful eye of a sadistic guard named Sean Nokes (Kevin Bacon), they are subjected to mental, physical, and sexual abuse.

Although their sentences are only for a year, those twelve months fundamentally alter their personalities. When we next meet them, in 1981, their lives have moved on, but the submerged hatred lingers. Lorenzo (now played by Jason Patric) is an aspiring reporter working for the New York Daily News. Michael (Brad Pitt) is an attorney in the D.A.'s office. John (Ron Eldard) and Tommy (Billy Crudup) are hardened criminals. All four are forced to confront their shared past when John and Tommy encounter Nokes in a restaurant. Their actions provide the catalyst for a plan that Michael devises to bring the entire Wilkinson experience into the open. So, with the help of Lorenzo; John's lover, Carol (Minnie Driver); and a burned-out lawyer (Dustin Hoffman), Michael strives to attain redemption and revenge for them all.

Sleepers' provocative script is marred only by an unnecessarily verbose voiceover narrative and the protracted final third. One of the most fascinating aspects of the movie is watching how the law can be manipulated to deliver justice in a manner that was never intended. And, while Michael's scheme may be a little too convoluted to be plausible, it's nevertheless entertaining to watch the pieces fall into place.

Then there's Father Bobby's dilemma, which, in some ways, echoes the one agonized over by the protagonist of Antonia Bird's Priest. At what point do the demands of basic humanity take precedence over the oaths and responsibilities of the Cloth? Much of this struggle is not played out in words, but in Bobby's face, and, with an actor of lesser ability than DeNiro, the emotional resonance of the internal war could have been lost.

DeNiro isn't the only one to turn in a powerful performance. Sleepers is as well-acted as it is deftly-crafted. There are those who may be disconcerted by the intensity of the reform school scenes (nothing overly graphic is shown, but much is implied). Levinson takes us through every phase of the boys' torture so that, when the time comes, we can understand and sympathize with their need to emulate the hero of their favorite book, The Count of Monte Cristo, and exact decisive retribution.

As Sleepers opens in theaters, members of the media are trying to determine how much of this film is grounded in reality. Ultimately, however, it doesn't make much difference whether the events of Sleepers happened or not. The themes and messages are no less valid either way, and, even if it isn't a true story, events like these could have transpired. Fact or fiction, this is a memorable motion picture.

Sleepers (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 2:32
U.S. Release Date: 1996-10-18
MPAA Rating: "R" (Vilence, Profanity, Nudity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1