Sleepers (1996)


Four boys are sent to a juvenile detention center where they are raped and brutalized by the guards. Thirteen years later, two of the boys have a chance encounter with the head guard that ends in vengeful bloodshed. It’s then up to the other two boys, one now a district attorney, to free their convicted pals and enact revenge on all the remaining guards.

Sleepers is based on a book by Lorenzo Carcaterra, and even though the film is two-and-one-half hours long, it’s dense and gripping, with never a dull moment. The first half of the story works well as a dark drama turned horror film. The child actors, including Brad Renfro and Joe Perrino, are convincingly naïve and frightened, while Kevin Bacon and Terry Kinney bring two of the guards to monstrous life. Director Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Toys) is never graphic with the crimes committed — hints and indications are disturbing enough.

The second half of the film brings in the courtroom drama component. All grown up, the boys are now played by Brad Pitt, Jason Patric, Billy Crudup, and Ron Eldard. Pitt plays the attorney, but he’s defending the slain guard — all while secretly directing Crudup’s and Edard’s lawyer, played by Dustin Hoffman, to frame the guards for their crimes. The legal mechanics employed in the film seem implausible to me, but it does allow for a great bit of suspense around Robert De Niro’s character. De Niro plays the boys’ fatherly priest — a better father to some of the boys than their own biological dads. But when Pitt’s plan hinges on having a witness, he and Patric have to put De Niro’s character into a moral dilemma — will he, as a trusted man of the cloth, lie under oath to save his boys from prison?

While the second half of the film feels overly-contrived and Jason Patric’s near-constant narration feels unnecessary at times, Sleepers absolutely has its share of great moments and great acting. Hoffman’s grilling of Terry Kinney (one of the guards) is a highlight, as is Patric’s admission to De Niro about what happened to the boys thirteen years ago. Levinson just lets the camera linger on De Niro’s face as he listens to Patric’s story. The dialogue fades out and the music fades in — and De Niro keeps us enthralled with the possibilities as the camera closes in on him. Will he cry or he will he burst into a fit of rage? There’s also a beautiful moment on a subway train between Pitt and Minnie Driver, who plays a childhood friend-turned-lover. And I have to single out Vittorio Gassman’s performance as ‘King Benny’, the man who gives the boys their first jobs, and who later pulls strings to aid them in court. His kind of gangster is one you can root for.

Oscar Nomination: Best Score (John Williams)

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