Writer Lorenzo Carcaterra claims that it's all true, that he only changed a few names -- and altered a few identifying details -- to protect the innocent. And the guilty.
The way Carcaterra tells it in Sleepers, his controversial bestseller, he and three other boys from New York's rough-and-tumble Hell's Kitchen accidentally injured an innocent bystander while stealing a hot-dog vendor's cart during the summer of 1967. The four boys were sent to the Wilkinson Home for Boys, a brutal and brutalizing juvenile prison. During several hellish months of incarceration, they were repeatedly beaten, tortured and sexually abused by vicious guards. Even so, they vowed never to tell anyone what happened to them. If they could keep silent, they figured, they might be able to forget.
But, of course, they didn't forget. How could they?
Two of the boys, Tommy and John, grew up to be hit men and drug dealers who left a bloody trail through their old neighborhood. Fifteen years after their stint at Wilkinson, they noticed a familiar face at the rear of their favorite tavern. There, hunched over his meal, was the most sadistic of the guards who used to torment them. So Tommy and John gunned him down, in full view of the other patrons.
A third friend, Michael, grew up to be an assistant district attorney. Fortunately, he could not be linked to Tommy and John, since all records of his reform school days were destroyed many years earlier. Even more fortunately, he was able to request, and receive, the job of prosecuting the hit men. Michael fully intended to botch the case, so his old friends would go free. To do this, however, he needed the help of a fourth friend: Lorenzo, a journalist who at the time of the murder was working in a low-profile job at the New York Daily News.
Truth really may be stranger than fiction, but that doesn't mean everyone will believe it. Many critics claimed Carcaterra manufactured his story -- one skeptical scribe dismissed it as "the most preposterous memoir since Gulliver's Travels" -- and the controversy grew even more heated after the author sold the movie rights for $2.1 million. Now that filmmaker Barry Levinson has brought Sleepers to the screen, you can rest assured that there will continue to be assaults on Carcaterra's integrity.
As a film, Sleepers is uneven and ultimately unsatisfying. There are some fine performances to admire here, along with a wealth of first-rate production values. But the narrative is never as gripping as it should be, for reasons that have little or nothing to do with any question of Carcaterra's honesty. Levinson obviously has tried to incorporate as much of the original book as possible, to cover as much ground and to introduce as many characters. But though Sleepers runs two and a half hours, the movie has the feel of something that has been whittled down from something more substantial and complex. Worse, it fails to provide a single character who is developed strongly enough, or allowed enough time on-screen, to provide a focus for the sprawling story. As Lorenzo, the writer's surrogate, Jason Patric serves as narrator, philosopher and, in the movie's second half, active participant. But he lacks the screen presence to be anything more than just another face in the crowd.
Patric doesn't even show up until the second hour of Sleepers. The first section of the film sticks to the 1960s, to show Lorenzo (Joe Perrino), Michael (Brad Renfro), John (Geoff Wigdor) and Tommy (Jonathan Tucker) as raucously mischievous boys on the streets and rooftops of Hell's Kitchen.
Lorenzo and his buddies have two different father figures in their orbit. On one hand, there is King Benny, the local mob boss, played by a magnificently ravaged Vittorio Gassman. On the other hand, there is Father Bobby, a straight-talking parish priest who takes a sympathetic interest in potential delinquents. Once you get past the shock of seeing Robert De Niro in the sort of role that once was one of Spencer Tracy's specialties, you can appreciate the subtlety and grace De Niro brings to playing this character.
There's nothing subtle about Kevin Bacon's portrayal of Sean Nokes, the most unabashedly evil of the four guards who regularly abuse Lorenzo and his friends at Wilkinson. Bacon starts out over the top and gets progressively more demonic. The performance lacks variety and strains credibility, but it serves a purpose. By making this character so fearsome, Levinson can get by with not showing us the rape and torture of the four boys in graphic detail. All we get is shadowy glimpses and quick-cut flashes of the horrors. And that's all we really need to see.
Father Bobby doesn't hear anything about the brutal treatment of the Hell's Kitchen boys until years later, when the grown-up Lorenzo tells him everything in a scene that is no less powerful for being so indirect. (We don't hear a lot of what Patric actually says, but the expression on De Niro's face speaks volumes.) Lorenzo knows full well that Father Bobby feels guilty because he wasn't able to keep the boys from being sent to Wilkinson in the first place. Not surprisingly, Lorenzo wants to play on that guilt, to convince Father Bobby that the only thing that will save Tommy and John is Father Bobby's perjured testimony.
Brad Pitt is admirably restrained as Michael, the assistant district attorney who hatches the dangerous plan to save Tommy and John. He allows the full force of his pent-up rage to seep through only once, in a scene where Michael reminds the initially hesitant Lorenzo of their shared regard for The Count of Monte Cristo. That classic tale of revenge is viewed as a kind of how-to manual by the adult Michael. Given the character's fury and cunning, however, it remains a mystery why it takes him so long to set into motion the subsidiary plots against two other former Wilkinson guards. Sleepers never explains precisely why Michael waits until after Nokes is killed before he takes advantage of information that, apparently, he has held for quite some time.
Patric is adequate, but scarcely more than that, as the adult Lorenzo. For all his time on-camera in the movie's second half, he makes a far less memorable impression than Billy Crudup (as the grown-up Tommy) and Ron Eldard (John). To be sure, the latter two actors have more flashy stuff to do. But Patric barely asserts himself even in his scenes opposite Minnie Driver as Carol, the neighborhood girl who has remained loyal to the four Wilkinson alumni. Driver has a thinly written role, but she makes the most of her every moment on-screen.
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So does Dustin Hoffman. As Danny Snyder, an alcoholic attorney hired by King Benny to defend Tommy and John, Hoffman strikes an artful balance of barely repressed fear and profound self-loathing. Snyder doesn't have to plot much legal strategy -- he knows Michael will feed him all the pertinent questions and answers he needs to build a case for his clients -- but Hoffman makes us understand that, on some level, the lawyer will gain a sense of personal redemption by serving as something slightly more than a puppet.
Levinson lays on the period atmosphere with a trowel, to give us a vivid impression of day-to-day life and death in Hell's Kitchen in the '60s and '80s. Occasionally, Sleepers plays like a rerun of some Martin Scorsese drama about good fellows and mean streets. But Levinson never achieves the visceral impact that Scorsese does in his best work. Sleepers is an efficient and generally well-acted piece of Hollywood professionalism. It is not a movie, however, that touches the heart or haunts the soul.
Directed by Barry Levinson. With Kevin Bacon, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Patric and Brad Pitt.