Sunday, May 1, 2011

Canon Movie Review: Sleepers

Earlier this evening, I watched a movie that depending on who you talk to may or may not be a true story, the 1996 film Sleepers. Directed by Barry Levinson, Sleepers has a deep cast, including Robert DeNiro, Brad Pitt, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Patric, Kevin Bacon, Billy Crudup, Minnie Driver, and others. Heck, John Williams even did the score for the film, so you know that Levinson went all out on this film. In Sleepers, a quartet of boys from Hell's Kitchen circa 1968 have their lives changed forever when a prank goes awry and nearly kills a man. For the prank, the boys are sent away to the Wilkinson Home for Boys, where they suffer many abuses by a team of guards led by Sean Nokes (Bacon). Thirteen years later, a chance meeting between Nokes and two of the boys he abused leads to the foursome taking out their revenge on the guards that wronged them while at Wilkinson, with some help along the way from an aging crime boss (Vittorio Gassman as King Benny), another friend of theirs from Hell's Kitchen (Driver), and the priest that has known them for most of their lives (DeNiro). A few notes from the film, and there probably will be SPOILERS, so read carefully.

- The movie's plot is basically told in three parts, the boys' childhood in Hell's Kitchen leading up to the incident that got them sent to Wilkinson, the incarceration period, and what happened 13 years after where the group got their revenge at the guards that abused them at Wilkinson. Of the three parts, the first part of the movie was the most compelling and well-done, at least to me. Levinson does an excellent job of bringing 1960s Hell's Kitchen to life, and the four boys (Shakes, Michael, John, and Tommy) are all quite interesting characters, with Shakes (played by Joseph Perrino) and John (Geoffrey Wigdor) especially standing out. The film also offers an interesting battle for the boys' souls, so to speak, as they have two mentors. One being the priest Father Bobby Carillo (DeNiro), a former criminal who reformed and found himself in the church, and the other being King Benny, the mob boss that runs Hell's Kitchen. While this part may have run a bit long, it does serve an important purpose as it introduces us to each character and makes the audience feel for them once the abuse at Wilkinson starts.

- Something I find interesting is that, in a film with two Academy Award winners (DeNiro, Hoffman) and one of the hottest young actors of the time (Pitt) in the film, that Kevin Bacon gets top billing. It's espcially odd since Bacon plays the main villain of the film. I will say, though, that Bacon is very convincing as the sadistic, perverted prison guard Sean Nokes. I wouldn't necessarily say it's Bacon's best performance, but it's in the top 5 for sure. DeNiro also does an excellent job in this movie as Father Carillo, playing the role very convincingly, while Hoffman does a convincing job as alcoholic lawyer Danny Snyder, even if he is somewhat underutilized. Overall, the acting is mostly well done, although I will say that I found Pitt's performance as the district attorney/mastermind of the whole plan to be a little flat. Maybe it's just me, but I think the role could have used a little more anger and intensity behind it, and at times I think Pitt was playing it too cool.

- There are a few cinematic themes to this movie, but the main one seems to be revenge. After all, it's hinted at early in the film when Shakes' father tells of King Benny getting revenge on a person that beat him up eight years ago, and the book The Count of Monte Crisco is brought up numerous times. Eventually, the four boys, now men, get the opportunity to take their revenge on Nokes and the rest of the guards, and the whole last half of the film or so is dedicated to that revenge. While it may be satisfying to see those guards get their comeuppance, it's done in such a way that lacks suspense. After all, you see Nokes get what was coming to him early on, and since he's the main guard, the revenge of all the other guards seem to be just icing on the cake. Plus, while the movie established Bacon as the main villian, it did very little to distinguish the other guards as separate villains, so you end up seeing a bunch of guys that you hardly knew about get their comeuppance. Then again, since it's based on a true story, maybe that's how it went down.

- Speaking of which, there has been a lot of controversy surrounding author Lorenzo Carcaterra's (who is called Shakes in the film and in the novel) claim that Sleepers is based on a true story. For one, the state of New York deny there ever being a case anything like the one described in the movie, where a juvenile detention center guard is murdered and the accused are found not guilty. The state also claims that there are no records of juvenile inmates being physically and sexually abused by guards, which would be a hard claim to completely prove, but that's their position. Carcaterra claims that, although the names have been changed, the story is true and he lived through it. From what I can tell by crudely researching the subject, I kind of have my doubts about his claim, and the story as a whole, especially everything that happened after Nokes' murder, seems a bit too clean to have happened in real life. Then again, I could be wrong and Carcaterra's being completly honest.

Whether or not Sleepers is based on a true story, this is a good film that borders on greatness. Levinson does a great job as a director, keeping the viewer interested and the plot fast-paced despite the film being nearly 2 and a half hours long. Williams' score and Michael Ballhaus's cinematography are also top-notch, and the acting is at a high level overall. While the plot had a couple of holes, (for example, the character of Carol Martinez was hardly mentioned in the first hour, but all of a sudden she's playing a major role and being presented as a direct peer to the quartet of boys featured earlier) overall it was a compelling story. The ending seemed kind of 'too perfect', though. Overall, Sleepers is a very good film that will make you think about a variety of subjects, although I would not recommend this film for children. I'd give Sleepers a 7.6 out of 10. Well, thanks for reading, and if you have any thoughts about this or other posts, or ideas for future posts, than let me know about them either by leaving a comment on the blog or sending me an e-mail at

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