Celebrating twenty years since its release, Barry Levinson’s film of Louis Carcaterra’s 1995 novel, is a solid production filled with solid performances telling a solid story, but in an unspectacular fashion that suffers by comparison with Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. Despite a cast that includes Brad Pitt, Robert de Niro and Dustin Hoffman, Sleepers is best remembered for the controversy surrounding the authenticity of its source material.
In an extended preliminary segment, we are introduced to four essentially decent kids in New York’s infamous Hell’s Kitchen district in the mid-1960s, making ends meet mostly respectably. That is until the friends almost kill someone during an accident, which sees them sentenced to a spell in the Wilkinson Home for Boys. There they encounter Kevin Bacon’s Nokes, a sadistic guard with a predilection for abusing his charges. What is in essence a prologue, lasts the better part of an hour, and while it is basically just the set-up for the second half of the film, it manages to tell an almost self-contained story in its own right – albeit one that never quite conveys the horror Levinson no doubt intends, thanks to some thoughtful but less than effective directorial choices.
We then relocate to the early 1980s, when the cruelty of the past is exposed, after two of the boys encounter Nokes in a bar and enact their revenge in front of the other customers. A third boy, Michael (Pitt), is now an assistant DA, and takes on the prosecution with an intent to lose the case, opposite Dustin Hoffman as an alcohol-soaked lawyer way past his prime. Throughout all of this, the boys’ confidant has been Father Bobby Carillo (de Niro), and now the defence rests upon the willingness of the most upstanding member of the community to perjure himself in court.
While the cast is undoubtedly excellent, the speech and behaviour patterns can result in the performances feeling a little affected, a problem compounded by the almost ubiquitous narration from the author’s alter ego “Stokes” (Jason Patric) which – while no doubt taking its cues from the novel – has a tendency to spell everything out beyond that which is necessary, removing much of the emotion from the characters’ situations. The result is a film, which feels at once both classy and stolid, like a cordon bleu meal served on a cardboard plate. The tension is entirely in waiting to see if the characters will do what you know they will, and there are few, if any, genuinely unexpected moments. Even Carcaterro’s shocking “true story” has now had its legitimacy almost entirely disproven, and what remains is a cold, if enjoyable enough, white elephant of a film.
SLEEPERS (1996) / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR: BARRY LEVINSON / SCREENPLAY: BARRY LEVINSON / STARRING: JASON PATRIC, ROBERT DE NIRO, BRAD PITT, KEVIN BACON, DUSTIN HOFFMAN, MINNIE DRIVER / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW