Screenplay : Barry Levinson (based on the book by Lorenzo Carcaterra)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1996
Stars : Jason Patric (Lorenzo, a.k.a. Shakes), Brad Pitt (Michael Sullivan), Robert De Niro (Father Bobby), Kevin Bacon (Sean Nokes), Billy Crudup (Tommy), Ron Eldard (John), Minnie Driver (Carol), Vittorio Gassman (King Benny), Dustin Hoffman (Danny Snyder), Joseph Perrino (Young Shakes), Brad Renfro (Young Michael), Geoffrey Wigdor (Young John), Jonathan Tucker (Young Tommy)
"Sleepers" boasts one of the most impressive cast lists in recent film history, including Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Brad Pitt, Kevin Bacon, and Jason Patric. Under the watchful hand of Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson ("Rain Man," "Bugsy"), every one of them turns in a stellar performances, making "Sleepers" one of the best films to come out in recent months. This is what ensemble acting is all about.
The film is based on the 1995 alleged memoir by Lorenzo Carcaterra. The author claims it is true, but many doubt its validity. When the book came out, there was a great deal of dispute about whether it was really a true store. Some said it worked too well along the lines of a Hollywood movie to be true. But in the end, it doesn't really matter because it makes a moving story about four boys' loss of innocence, and the retribution they seek later in life for that loss. If it is a true story, that's just icing on the cake.
The four boys are Lorenzo, nicknamed "Shakes" for his love of reading, Michael, John and Tommy. The opening passages of the film follow them growing up in Hell's Kitchen during the 1960s. They divide their time between working for the local crime boss King Benny (Vittoria Gassman), and shooting hoops with a local priest named Father Bobby (De Niro) who understands them well because he used to be like them.
Then a dangerous prank goes terribly wrong, and the boys find themselves sentenced to the Wilkinson School for Boys. There they are forever changed by four sadistic guards led by Sean Nokes (Kevin Bacon). For eighteen harrowing months the boys lose their humanity as they are endlessly beaten, humiliated and raped.
Years later, John and Tommy, who grow up to be murderous gang members, run into a much older and more pathetic Nokes in a restaurant where they shoot him dead. When they are arrested, Michael (Pitt), now an assistant district attorney, comes up with a plan. He is going to prosecute his two friends, but he doesn't want them found guilty. With help from Shakes (Patric), an old girlfriend from the neighborhood (Minnie Driver from "Circle of Friends"), and an alcoholic lawyer (Hoffman), Michael concocts a way to get their friends off free, and put the Wilkinson Home For Boys on trial instead.
The plan is not simple, and it requires a labyrinth of planning and scheming, one part requiring Father Bobby to take the stand and commit perjury. This is only one of the aspects that makes the plan morally troublesome, and thus more compelling. On an emotional level, we want to see the guards get what's coming to them. However, on a rational level, we see that the revenge involves lying, murdering, and undermining the entire American judicial system. It is on this morally ambiguous plane that the film is at its best.
Although "Sleepers" is billed as a thriller, this is not what the film is about. As Patric's somewhat stilted voice-over narration tells us in the opening scene: "This is a true story about friendships that run deeper than blood." In the end, the film is about human relationships, and what draws us together as friends. The experiences the four boys share at Wilkinson were horrible indeed, but it formed a bond among them that no one could ever break -- not time or distance or social conventions that keep district attorneys and murderous gang members apart.
By the time the film ends, and the four friends are together for the last time bathed in nostalgia, it is never sentimental because they have earned it. They have been through hell and back together, and they have proved what friendship is about. In the end you realize that it doesn't really matter whether what they did was lawful because they didn't do it for themselves -- they did it for each other. And that makes all the difference.
Reprinted with permission The Baylor Lariat