Sleepers (1996) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

More than any other movie I can recall, "Sleepers" is really two movies, and it takes 149 minutes to tell both stories.

Part One is a more typical of the material that director Barry Levinson excels at - a period piece which reminisces about guy friendships formed when growing up in the 50's and 60's (in this particular movie, the 60's). Four good kids grow up in a tough neighborhood, where they come into contact with and form equal respect for the local mob boss and the local priest. One day, a prank of theirs runs amok and results in a severe injury. The boys are sentenced to a year in reform school. While they are are at the school, they are beaten, brutalized, and raped by sadistic guards.

This film is a recollection of the bonds between friends, and between the friends and the priest they admired. It seems unvarnished - direct and unsentimentally honest. I grew up in the same era, knew plenty of Catholic guys from Hell's Kitchen, including the Christian Brothers who grew up and taught there (By the way, a great basketball star, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, grew up in this same Catholic Hell's Kitchen environment in the same era). The characters were amazingly true to my recollection, especially Robert DeNiro's Father Bobby, who seems like a clone of Brother Tracy, one of my own teachers (and Kareem's, I think).

I also saw first-hand the brutality of some adult caretakers, not to the extent pictured in this movie, but to a sufficient degree that some of my own classmates later gained revenge on some of our teachers. These cases were not as extreme as the ones pictured in the movie. The acts I witnessed were less violent, and the subsequent revenge was less dramatic, but we nonetheless had teachers who beat and sexually assaulted boys, and who were later repaid in kind when the boys grew up. And I went to a ritzy prep school, so I can imagine that a reform school would be many, many times worse, and would therefore generate far deeper hatred in guys who were far tougher individuals. I bought into this part of the movie completely.

The second film shows the same characters as adults, 13 years later, gaining revenge on the reform school guards who took away their innocence and changed their lives forever.

The central incident in this film is the trial of two of the boys, who brutally murdered the head guard, and are surprisingly prosecuted by another of the quartet, who is now a D.A. The entire trial is a set-up, staged so that the murderers will be exonerated while the brutality of the reform school and its guards is graphically and publicly exposed.


There is only one brief and anonymous nude scene. Through a broken window, the boys see one of the skaters in the Ice Capades while she's topless backstage.
This second film is a different type of movie, not a deeply honest recollection, but a sensationalized revenge story complete with a monumental and seemingly too convenient moral cross-over. Although he's writing all the questions for both himself and the defense attorney, he knows that juries can be fickle, so the D.A. is missing one sure-fire element which he requires to assure an acquittal. He needs a witness to provide the defendants with an air-tight alibi. At this point, Father Bobby re-enters their lives. After much soul-searching, the priest agrees to lie in court, after swearing to God on a bible, in order to help expose the evils of the institution that corrupted and savaged his beloved boys. The priest's ethical dilemma, his search for the true nature of moral right, is the essence of the adult part of the story.

SIDEBAR: To me it is not clear that he made the right decision, even setting his religious faith aside. Although Father Bobby loved them, they really were savage murderers, and he returned the two killers to the streets. In dissecting his moral dilemma, the story glosses over the fact that the accused really did the brutal act of which they are accused, committed many other violent crimes, and will commit more acts of mayhem after they are released.

The first half is an exceptionally good movie, albeit somewhat weakened by an overused voice-over narration. Apart from that, however, it's convincingly written and beautifully acted by the adolescents, and by DeNiro and Vittorio Gassman as the pillars of the church and the mob, the opposite attracting poles of their existence.

The second half is spoiled by the contrived plot, the shallow glossing over of Father Bobby's decision, an excessive dependence on cliched black and white fast-cut flashbacks, and a bit of rambling to go with the dreaded voice-over. But this half is also beautifully acted. The adult cast is impressive. Besides Gassman and DeNiro, it features Dustin Hoffman, Minnie Driver, Jason Patric, Brad Pitt, Billy Crudup, and Kevin Bacon. You expect people like Hoffman and DeNiro to be brilliant, but I was especially blown away by Jason Patric, who really hasn't impressed me elsewhere. The whole cast is outstanding.

Oddly enough, Levinson got trapped into this same kind of split film with his bomb, "Jimmy Hollywood". Pesci and Slater and Abril were creating some real characters in the first part of the movie, until the premise-laden convolutions of maintaining a non-existent vigilante group forced them to abandon the realistic promise of the setup stage and turn into Laverne and Shirley characters. The author abandoned our hard-earned belief in exchange for a complete suspension of disbelief. It's as if the first half of these movies was painstakingly remembered personal reality like To Kill a Mockingbird, and the second half was some far-fetched escapist fare like Moonraker.

It's a shame, because when Levinson sticks to reality throughout the film, as in Diner or Liberty Heights, his evocations of time and friendship can be truly penetrating. I wish that the second half of Sleepers were more honest, less tidy, more morally complex. That could have made it a masterpiece.

But as it is, I still liked it a lot. I'd call it three stars - three and a half for ACT 1, and two and a half for ACT 2 - and I'd have no hesitation in recommending it to anyone who is intrigued by the premise.

DVD info from Amazon.

Two sided DVD, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Good transfer.

Trailer, no other features.

It had originally been claimed that Lorenzo Carcaterra's novel was based on fact, and that the Jason Patric character, named Lorenzo, was the author himself. This claim has since been widely disputed, and is now regarded as exaggerated or just bogus. Although it is said that truth can be stranger than fiction, it seems to me that the second half is too contrived to be real.

Perhaps the novel is a fictional effort which draws from some real experiences, or perhaps it is entirely a work of the imagination. It doesn't really matter. Whether the factual basis is completely true, partly true, or just a stylistic device, the film is a moving experience and I'm surprised that it attracted so little attention from film-goers and award societies.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three stars Maltin 2.5/4, Ebert 3/4, Berardinelli 3.5/4.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary. 6.9 out of 10
  • The film was a solid performer, but not a great smash in the US. It accumulated a domestic box of $53 million on a $44 million budget. It did very well internationally, however, with more than $110 million overseas box. It was the 16th highest grossing picture in the world in 1996.

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