What disappoints me the most about Sleepers is that it could have been a really intelligent action/revenge thriller. There are even scenes that offer a flash or two of the brilliance the movie could have offered.
Recommend this product?
What went wrong, you ask? Let me tell you.
The first part of Sleepers is set in Hell’s Kitchen in the mid 1960’s. It is a place, as the annoying voiceover solemnly informs us, of “innocence ruled by corruption.”
In that atmosphere, four friends—“Shakes” (short for Shakespeare, played by Joseph Perinno), Michael (Brad Renfro), Tommy (Jonathan Tucker), and John (Geoffrey Wigdor)—grow up under the benevolent eye of their friend Father Bobby (Robert DeNiro), and the not-so-benevolent eye of King Benny (Vittorio Gassman), the local crime lord.
The boys are mischievous, but not really bad. Most of their pranks are minor, for instance, sneaking into a confessional to overhear people’s secrets, and stealing a nun’s “clacker” to wreak havoc during Mass.
One summer day, they decide to rob a hotdog stand for some free food and some easy laughs. For extra amusement, they push the stand for a couple of blocks so the owner will have to search for it. But their plan backfires when they lose control of the stand trying to ease it down a flight of stairs. An elderly man is seriously injured, and a judge sentences the boys to a year at Wilkinson, a juvenile detention center.
On their first night at Wilkinson, the boys are tortured physically and sexually by four guards, led by Sean Nokes (Kevin Bacon). The first night sets the tone for their time at the center—they are subjected to repeated beatings and rapes throughout their incarceration. As their release date draws near, they make a pact never to speak of the abuse they’ve suffered, even to each other.
Flash forward fourteen years, to 1981. The boys have grown up. Shakes (Jason Patric) is working at a newspaper. Michael (Brad Pitt) has become a lawyer and is employed by the district attorney’s office. John (Ron Eldard) and Tommy (Billy Crudup) have strayed to the wrong side of the law. They have formed their own gang and are suspects in several murders.
One night, John and Tommy go into a bar and see their old nemesis, Sean Nokes. They kill him in cold blood, in front of several witnesses, and are arrested for first degree murder. It seems all but certain they will spend the rest of their lives in jail.
But Michael has other ideas. He convinces the D.A. to let him prosecute the case, and begins an elaborate plan to not only free John and Tommy but also to punish the other three guards who participated in their torture.
Thus begins an elaborate game of payback…
A few scenes in this film approach brilliance. For instance, the shooting of Sean Nokes by Tommy and John is both chilling and effective. John is the first to notice Nokes, when he walks toward the back of the bar to go to the bathroom. He stares into Nokes’s eyes in disbelief, then stumbles into the bathroom and meets his own gaze in the mirror. His face is ashen, his eyes watering. He makes an effort and pulls himself together, even managing a cold, humorless smile before he leaves the room.
A few seconds later, he and Tommy confront Nokes, who at first does not even remember them, then discounts the abuse as unimportant, something done for their own good to “toughen you up.” John pulls out his gun, and Nokes’s face blazes with fear and rage.
Nokes: You two…are gonna burn in hell! You are gonna burn in hell!
John: Yeah. After you.
(He and Billy shoot Nokes multiple times, then put their guns away and walk out of the bar as if nothing has happened.)
Another effective scene comes when Shakes asks Father Bobby to lie for John and Tommy in court. Knowing he must offer a reason, he breaks his vow never to speak of Wilkinson and tells his old friend everything. Most of his words are obscured by music and the ever-present narration, so the viewer hears only a phrase here and a word there. Towards the end of the scene, the camera hones in on DeNiro’s face, which grows grimmer and more sad with every syllable he hears. Most actors would probably have tried for a few tears during this close up. DeNiro doesn’t. His anguish is clearly beyond anything as uncomplicated as tears.
Most of the acting is quite solid. DeNiro, especially, deserves kudos for his complex and thoughtful portrayal of Father Bobby. Vittorio Gassman is fun to watch as the sharp-tongued, lethal underworld figure, King Benny. Frank Medrano brings a cynical, outspoken wit to the part of Fat Mancho, a crusty neighborhood storekeeper who gives the boys advice and tries to protect them.
Ron Eldard, who plays John, mostly has to sit in the courtroom and look angry and concerned, but as I’ve mentioned above, he does nail the crucial scene where John and Tommy kill Nokes. He easily turns in the best performance among the four friends (Billy Crudup simply doesn’t have a chance to make much of his role, Jason Patric is capable but not brilliant, and Brad Pitt looks as if he’d rather be somewhere else, not that I blame him).
Final praise to Kevin Bacon for bringing life to Sean Nokes, the sadistic guard. Bacon doesn’t go out on any limbs with his portrayal, nor does he try to humanize Nokes, but his acting is capable, and in his hands, Nokes becomes an intimidating villain.
Finally, there are some clever lines of dialogue that bring a bit of comic relief to the grinding seriousness. For instance, at one point, Shakes finds King Benny feeding pigeons. “I didn’t know you liked pigeons so much,” he remarks. “I like anything that don’t talk,” the old gangster responds.
In another scene, Shakes and Michael discuss the case against John and Tommy.
Michael: I’ve got four witnesses who saw the shooting and are willing to testify. Gotta get that number down.
Shakes: I’ll call King Benny.
What Doesn’t Work
My first complaint with the film is the almost constant narration by Shakes (Jason Patric). Some of his remarks are witty and/or advance the plot. Most of them simply repeat what the viewer has already seen or foreshadow what the viewer is going to see.
This device is generally a warning sign that the screenplay does not hang together well. And this one doesn’t. While some individual scenes are quite powerful, they are never quite brought together into a cohesive whole. At times the plot stumbles and falters, at other times it races along at breakneck speed. Some of the scenes are unnecessary, others are not developed fully enough.
Some scenes don’t even make sense. A scene where Michael calls a former Wilkinson guard as a “character witness” for Nokes and then allows the defense attorney to break him on the stand, for instant, is almost laughably out of place. In order to explain what has happened, screenwriter and director Barry Levinson must resort to yet another voice over: “[Michael] exposed [the guard] for what he was and still kept John’s and Tommy’s motive for killing Nokes hidden from the eyes of the court.”
As this example implies, the movie is extremely heavy-handed. Levinson acts as if he has lost all faith in his viewers, as if we must have every bit of information spoon-fed to us and then explained carefully, just in case we missed its significance the first time.
Rather than a narrator, this picture really needs a good editor.
While some of the performances are brilliant, others don’t make the grade. Brad Pitt, for instance, never quite gets a handle on his character, Michael. He shows up for his scenes, but that’s about all one can say in praise of his performance. Another surprising disappointment is Dustin Hoffman, normally one of my favorite actors, who plays boozy defense attorney Danny Snyder. Hoffman performs every line in a monotone, without inflection and seemingly without comprehension. It’s boring and it doesn’t work.
Sleepers is rated “R” for rough language, violence, and sexual content, including a couple of pretty graphic scenes of the rape of a teenager.
Although I am not generally squeamish, I will say that I found the rape sequences extremely disturbing and difficult to watch. At least one of my friends could not sit through them and had to step outside. Please be aware that if scenes like this are triggering to you, you should either avoid this movie or be ready to hit the fast-forward button.
If you are going to let the younger members of your family watch—and I don’t advise it—you should probably view the film with them and be ready to address their questions and concerns. It might also help to point out that, while revenge might make the characters feel better for a short time, it really doesn’t improve their lives—quite the opposite, in fact. You don’t want a young child walking away from this thinking homicide is a reasonable option!
Although I have some major complaints about this movie, and although it is clearly not for children, I reluctantly recommend Sleepers to adult viewers. Some of the acting is quite good, and a few extremely well done scenes make it worth at least one look, especially if you’re a fan of DeNiro, Gassman, or Eldard.
Read all comments (4)