Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 14, 2012)
With noted director Barry Levinson behind the camera and a super-famous cast in front, how in the world did 1996’s Sleepers earn a mediocre $53 million in the US and only earn one Oscar nomination – for Best Score, to boot?
Good question. While I can understand why a story about vengeance and abused kids might not have lit up the box office, it seemed primed for award glory that never came. Well, Sleepers wouldn’t be the first high-profile movie to receive little Oscar love, and it won’t be the last. I know the film didn’t leave much of an impression on me 15 years ago, but I was curious to give it another look on Blu-ray.
We start in the summer of 1966, where we go to “Hell’s Kitchen” in New York and meet a group of close-knit adolescents. All lead hard family lives but enjoy a reasonable measure of fun among themselves, and they also find service as altar boys. We focus on Lorenzo “Shakes” Carcaterra (Joseph Perrino), but we also get to know John Reilly (Geoffrey Wigdor), Michael Sullivan (Brad Renfro) and Tommy Marcano (Jonathan Tucker).
One day during the summer of 1967, they decide to stage a petty theft on a local hot dog cart vendor. Shakes will order a frank and run off without payment. This leaves two options for the vendor: stand his ground and suck up the lost dog, or run after Shakes. He chooses the latter, which leaves the cart open to massive pilfering from John, Michael and Tommy.
Rather than simply enjoy their free feast, the kids decide to take the prank to another level. They push the heavy cart a couple of blocks away and position it at the top of a subway entrance. They intend to let the owner take possession of its handles and run off, which will leave him struggling to retrieve the cart.
Unfortunately, they can’t maintain their own grasp on it. They get the cart to the top of the steps and lose control; that sends it careening down, where the cart crushes a commuter and leaves him severely injured.
This prank alters the kids’ lives. They end up in the juvenile justice system, where they land in the Wilkinson Home for Boys for six to 18 months apiece.
This doesn’t go well for them. Essentially a housing pen for young thugs with little hope of rehabilitation, the boys attempt to do their time in peace but find many obstacles to this. In addition to the violent criminals with whom they live, they must deal with sadistic guards. Led by Sean Nokes (Kevin Bacon), most of these men show little concern for the kids and prefer to abuse them, sexually and otherwise.
Inevitably, this horrible stay at the Home for Boys leaves scars on the kids, and these persist when we revisit them in 1981. Since we last saw them in 1968, Tommy (Billy Crudup) and John (Ron Eldard) developed into noted criminals and killers. While at a local bar, they happen to see Nokes as he eats dinner. They immediately recognize him and exact vengeance on him just as quickly; they kill Nokes right there at his table.
Inevitably, a crime this public lands them in jail, which is where matters become more complicated. Now an assistant DA, Michael (Brad Pitt) takes on the case – so he can lose it and free his friends. He views the death of Nokes as the first step in a grand plan to take revenge on all the oppressive/abusive guards from Wilkinson, and he involves Shakes (Jason Patric) – now a journalist – to be part of the complex program.
If you read my reviews of other Levinson movies, you’ll know I’m not much of a fan of the man’s work. By no means do I think he’s a bad filmmaker, as I’ve liked some of his films; in particular, Bugsy and The Natural stand out as strong efforts.
Unfortunately, Levinson’s filmography comes burdened with mawkish, heavy-handed duds like Rain Man, Avalon, Toys and Man of the Year. Levinson’s weak films outnumber the good ones and leave me with little optimism when I watch any of his works.
Where does Sleepers fall in the Levinson continuum? Not at the top, but far from the bottom. At the very least, Levinson – perhaps energized by his work on the then-recent series Homicide - usually reins in his sentimental tendencies. Though you’ll find grittier, more brutal films than Sleepers, Levinson does manage to give it a harshness that suits the tale. This isn’t a happy, cheerful story, so it needs a certain ugliness, and Levinson manages to leave enough rough edges to give it power.
To a large degree, Sleepers feels like “Levinson does Scorsese”. The movie bears a lot of Scorsese’s stylistic touches, though it lacks the impressive flourishes you’d find in something like GoodFellas. Still, it has the same kind of feel you’d get from Scorsese.
Or Scorsese Lite, in this case. While Sleepers has a Scorsese feel, it lacks the impact one would expect from that director’s work. To be sure, it tells an interesting tale and tells it in a reasonably compelling way, but it never delivers much depth.
This becomes more apparent during the film’s second half, as we spend time with the adult versions of the characters. Sleepers works fine when we’re back in the Sixties, as it develops the kids in a decent manner and shows us their ordeal in an appropriate fashion. The film doesn’t give us explicit content but it makes it clear how much pain the kids suffered. I think the first half of the flick could’ve been edited a bit – some of the Wilkinson scenes get redundant – but it still does well for itself.
And the “adult half” is also pretty good, but the film shies away from the deeper issues involved. To a degree, it almost feels like a caper flick. Michael concocts a plan to set his friends free and punish those who abused them as kids – that’s about it. Sure, the film hints at the tougher topics but it doesn’t dig into them in a satisfying manner.
That’s also true for the movie’s deeper philosophical subjects. As adults, John and Tommy are clearly pretty unsavory characters. We can argue that Nokes deserved to die, and we can argue that they were the products of their experiences at Wilkinson. One can certainly make a case for the former, but the latter comes on shakier ground, especially since Shakes and Michael went in the opposite direction.
Nonetheless, those issues can be debated – but they’re not. The film simply assumes that all the guards get exactly what they deserve, and it does little to examine John and Tommy as people. It leaves these issues largely unaddressed and avoids bigger implications.
In particular, Sleepers skirts the major theme of global right and wrong. Michael and company operate from rather dicey moral grounds. It goes down the “do two wrongs make a right?” category, as Michael and the others openly subvert justice to correct the sins that occurred during their youth. They recruit many others to lie and perform other crimes solely to keep John and Tommy out of jail for this crime.
Clearly there’s a bigger issue here, but the film avoids it. Are we supposed to be happy if John and Tommy avoid jail? Even if Nokes “deserved it”, the film tells us they’ve killed many others and are clearly stone-cold criminals. Is it justice that they don’t pay for any of these deeds?
And what good does their freedom do for the cause? We’re led to understand that Michael will throw the trial to right bigger wrongs and get back at all the Wilkinson guards who abused them. However, the trial has little to do with that agenda; one guard goes down due to the Nokes case, but most of them receive punishment unconnected to the legal proceedings. If Michael simply wants justice to be done against those who hurt him and the others as kids, why do Tommy and John need to go free?
They don’t, and that’s a big problem – one that the movie avoids. It views their freedom as a good thing, and I guess we’re supposed to be happy if they don’t serve time. I’m not. While one can argue they had good cause for this one crime, the movie’s loose sense of ethics doesn’t suit the material and make us feel like they shouldn’t pay at all – especially given all those other misdeeds they’ve done.
Sleepers does present an interesting flick, so don’t take my criticisms to indicate that I don’t find value in it. The story is intriguing and told in a positive manner. I simply think it ends up lacking due to its simplicity; without more examination of the extremely loose ethics/morals on display, it’s a one-dimensional experience.