Let me give you a piece of advice regarding the movie Sleepers: As you settle into your seat for the opening credits and the phrase "based on a true story" appears, ignore it. Watch this movie as if it were a work of pure fiction. The best-selling book of the same title by Lorenzo Carcaterra (who claims to have changed all the names and identities but not the pertinent facts) generated a squall of controversy over the allegedly autobiographical tale's veracity; both the Manhattan district attorney's office and the Catholic Church have repudiated Carcaterra's book, which includes a priest who commits perjury and a D.A. who tanks a trial in order to get two childhood pals acquitted of murder. Maybe somebody should tell the offended authority figures to chill; Carcaterra's priest and "corrupt" D.A. come off as complex, compassionate heroes, and both the priesthood and the legal profession can use all the positive press they can get.
Whether the events depicted in Sleepers (the term is slang for kids sentenced to reform school) actually took place or not, the film packs a visceral wallop unlike any other major Hollywood release this year. Who would dispute that state-run penal institutions -- be they prisons or reform schools like Sleepers's Wilkinson Home for Boys -- are rife with violence, sexual abuse, and brutality, much of it perpetrated with the tacit approval -- and in some cases, active involvement -- of guards? It doesn't matter whether or not you believe that these things happened to Carcaterra and his friends. The only thing that matters is that you believe these things happen. To quote the film's writer-director Barry Levinson, "[Sleepers] is not an indictment of the prison system, but it does question the unchecked power that is given to people who may abuse it, whether in juvenile detention centers, mental hospitals, or old-age homes."
So forget the "did it really happen?" question. You'll need all your powers of concentration to keep the names straight as four happy-go-lucky kids from Hell's Kitchen commit a harmless prank that snowballs into a horrible accident. They're sentenced to Wilkinson, where a team of sadistic guards led by one Sean Nokes (Kevin Bacon transforming his own boyish looks into a mask of pure evil) violently rob the lads of their innocence. The film's first half over-romanticizes the idyllic nature of the boys' upbringing, then blows it to smithereens with their hellish descent into the bowels of Wilkinson. It's an obvious and manipulative trick; the kids are cute and lovable victims, Nokes and his colleagues two-dimensional sadistic perverts. Nonetheless, you accept the exaggerations because of Levinson's skilled direction and the extraordinarily accomplished and ingratiating performances of the quartet of young actors who play the ill-fated, unsuspecting young'uns -- The Juror's Joe Perrino as the Carcaterra proxy, a bookworm nicknamed Shakes (short for Shakespeare); Brad Renfro (The Client, The Cure) as Michael the defiant ringleader; and Jonathan Tucker and Geoff Wigdor as Tommy and John, the younger, smaller tagalongs whose lives are forever ruined by the horrors visited upon them at Wilkinson.
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The first act ends with a final atrocity committed on the eve of Shakes's release; the second act opens fifteen years later as Tommy (Billy Crudup) and John (Ron Eldard) enter a local restaurant. Emotionally scarred by their reform school nightmare, the two sweet little kids have grown into vicious, hard-drinking, harder-drugging thugs and reputed hit men. On this fateful night they notice a man eating alone in a corner booth. It's Sean Nokes. After introducing themselves to their former captor and abuser, Tommy and John calmly -- and in full view of the other diners -- take out their guns and blow Nokes away. They are quickly taken into custody and their convictions on charges of first-degree murder seem assured.
Enter assistant district attorney Michael (Brad Pitt taking pains to not look like the sexiest man alive) and Shakes (soulful Jason Patric), an aspiring reporter. With the help of local crime boss King Benny (regal Vittorio Gassman), broken-down alcoholic defense attorney Danny Snyder (Dustin Hoffman in his subtlest, most magical performance since he last teamed with director Levinson in 1988's Rain Man), and token love interest Carol (Big Night's Minnie Driver gamely assaying a thankless role), Michael and Shakes concoct an elaborate scheme to complete the cycle of revenge begun by their imprisoned comrades. The plot's success hinges on the cooperation of the boys' lifelong spiritual guide and paternal influence Father Bobby (Robert De Niro).
The narrative follows traditional formulaic conventions; few surprises await. But just as the four young actors are outstanding at playing Michael, Shakes, Tommy, and John as children, so are the adults who play their grown-up counterparts. De Niro, Hoffman, and Gassman deliver rousing supporting performances, and Pitt, Patric, Crudup, and Eldard offer solid acting to match their hunk appeal. The hollow, haunted looks in these four men's normally cover-boy countenances make their pain almost palpable. Pitt offers further proof -- as if any were needed after his first-rate work in 12 Monkeys and Seven -- that talent and good looks are not mutually exclusive; Patric establishes legitimate leading-man credentials. Even the sporadically annoying Kevin Bacon comes through, filling in some of the holes in Nokes's personality left by Levinson's screenplay. Thanks to the efforts of the stellar ensemble cast, Sleepers delivers a rousing tale of friendship, loyalty, suffering, revenge, and redemption guaranteed to keep you awake.
Written and directed by Barry Levinson; with Jason Patric, Brad Pitt, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Kevin Bacon, Vittorio Gassman, Brad Renfro, Billy Crudup, Ron Eldard, Bruno Kirby, Joe Perrino, and Minnie Driver.