Barry Levinson Delivers a Shocking Portrait of Child Abuse in Sleepers
by Gary Johnson

Go to:
The official Web site for Sleepers.

Sleepers is a provocative story about the events that forever changed four boys from Hellís Kitchen. Based upon the controversial book by Lorenzo Carcaterra, Sleepers takes us on a horrifying journey inside a boys reformatory, where the guards sexually abuse the inmates, and to the disturbing comeuppance deal out by the boys, now men, thirteen years later.

Movie poster for Sleepers.

While author Carcaterra has been the subject of considerable flack regarding the veracity of his story (did the events really occur as he claimed or were they just the work of his imagination?), director Barry Levinsonís romantic approach renders any subsequent debate irrelevant. Levinsonís Sleepers deals less in truth and documentary realism than it does in romanticizing and idealizing Hellís Kitchen and the major characters. This approach leads to some of the filmís greatest triumphs, but also some of its greatest weaknesses.

The early scenes with the boys are indeed intoxicating, creating a magnificent time period, like the one recalled in The Boys of Summer or The Pope of Greenwich Village where thereís always a game of stickball to play, always an open fire hydrant gushing water on exuberant youngsters, always time for sunbathing on the roof or leaping off the wharf into the bay (back when you could actually swim in the Hudson River), and where thereís always a fat, lazy summer wind carrying a doo-wop melody.

The boys watch in horror in Sleepers.

(©1996 Warner Brothers)

These scenes are carefully crafted to pull us into the story and intoxicate us so we wonít mind getting manipulated later (which the movie actually does right from its start but it's so well crafted itís hard to complain). The movie gives us four eternally exuberant youngsters who become models of American youth, even while they run money for the mob. But their exuberance also makes them believe in their own invulnerability, that they can do anything and get away with it. And so they rob a hot dog vendor, run off with this cart, and accidentally-on-purpose send it crashing down some subway steps.

The scenes with the boys take up the first 45 minutes of the movie. Of the movieís big name marquee stars, only Robert DeNiro and Kevin Bacon appear during this time. DeNiro plays Father Bobby, a priest at the local Catholic church where the boys serve as altar boys. And Bacon plays a reformatory guard named Nokes. While DeNiro's role is relatively low key, Bacon's role places him in the spotlight, creating a despicable, purely evil character who delights in torture and sexual abuse.

After the boys serve their time, the movie leaps from 1968 to 1981 and shows us the boys all grown up. The abuse hangs with them, but they don't talk about it. Two of the boys have careers, one a writer (played by Jason Patric, who also serves as the narrator) and the other a lawyer (Brad Pitt) in the District Attorney's office. However, the other two boys have become street thugs (Ron Eldard and Billy Crudup). One night Eldard and Crudup stumble into a bar and find Nokes sitting at a table, eating his dinner. Initially, they're stunned, but then they pull out their guns and fill him with lead.

Jason Patric and Robert DeNiro in Sleepers.

(©1996 Warner Brothers)

Pitt then steps forward with a plan to finish the revenge against the other guards involved in the abuse. During this time, the movie adopts a somber, humorless approach that emphasizes the emptiness in the boys' lives. In the process, the characters become cold and distant and impossible to warm up to. And that is no doubt Levinson's intention--to show us the emotional wreckage caused by the sexual abuse--but the characters displayed on screen then become vague and insubstantial. The courtroom drama overpowers the characters, but Pitt's scheme contains few surprises as it slowly and inexorably plods forward, toward a rigged conclusion. We even get a trial witness breaking down and revealing everything, just like on Perry Mason.

However, with DeNiro, Pitt, Patric and Dustin Hoffman (as an alcoholic lawyer) on hand, the movie always feels like an event, as if anything can happen--even when the movie is stumbling through relatively routine courtroom drama. Almost any episode of TV's Law and Order gives us more intriguing developments in the courtroom.

But much of the failure of Sleepers comes from the romanticized attitude toward the characters. The filmmakers clearly want us to like Pitt, Patric, Crudup, and Eldard. When they're together, the music swells and the camera drifts into soft focus, idealizing them and blaming all the problems in their lives on the sexual abuse. Crudup and Eldard might look like gutter trash (and they've killed over half a dozen people between them), but in the eyes of the filmmakers, they're fallen angels and not responsible for their behavior.

Sleepers is further evidence of Barry Levinsonís great facility for creating magnificent, atmospheric evocations of Americaís past; however, a romantic approach tends to force feed the audience the moral issues without communicating the complexities or ambiguities.

A Warner Brothers Presentation


Sean NokesKevin Bacon
Father BobbyRobert DeNiro
Danny SnyderDustin Hoffman
MichaelBrad Pitt
LorenzoJason Patric
Young LorenzoJoe Perrino
Young MichaelBrad Renfro
CarolMinnie Driver
JohnRon Eldard
Young JohnGeoff Wigdor
TommyBilly Crudup
Young TommyJonathan Tucker
Lorenzo's FatherBruno Kirby
King BennyVittorio Gassman
Directed and Written byBarry Levinson
Produced byBarry Levinson
Steve Golin
Executive ProducerPeter Giuliano
Director of PhotographyMichael Ballhaus
EditorStu Linder
Production DesignerKristi Zea
Music byJohn Williams
Costume DesignerGloria Gresham
Song SupervisorAllan Mason