…and we’re back.
Sleepers, an often dull piece of Oscar bait from Barry Levinson, is based on a “nonfiction novel” by Lorenzo Carcaterra. For a certain narrow segment of a generation (mine) with particular true crime tastes, it was the kind of book you hid from your parents and read under the covers. Its themes of friendship, brotherhood, survival, and long-awaited revenge, combined with the lurid, exploitative tone of the book, made it irresistible. It was the kind of book you read four or five times and then looked back years later and wondered why.
Carcattera, then as now, insisted that the events of the novel — where he and three friends grow up in 1960s Hell’s Kitchen, endure a brutal stint at an upstate reformatory school that breaks them physically and emotionally, then reunite 20 years later to subvert the justice system when two boys kill one of their abusers — are true. Key players on the other side – including the NYC D.A.’s office and Carcaterra’s school – insist that it isn’t. To this day, no one has been able to definitively prove one way or the other they’re telling the truth. It’s enough to make you wonder what sort of reception Sleepers would receive today, post Stephen Glass and James Frey, when a Gawker or a Buzzfeed could devote the time to fully airing out the stink of Carcaterra’s bullshit.
That’s one of the problems with Sleepers, the movie. It believes his story wholeheartedly and presents a faithful adaptation of the book’s plot, if not its tone. The problem with the structure of Sleepers is that it tells three stories — a coming of age Scorsese rip-off, a brutal, often impressionistic boy’s prison story, and a strange heist-legal thriller pastiche in the third act. It’s a format that works well in the novel, but not here, because, despite Levinson’s best attempts to connect the storylines through voice-over and flashbacks, there’s simply too much going on to latch onto.
The cast is excellent, though. This was when Robert De Niro cared, and he’s great here as the local priest who is an unfailing ally to the boys and the men they become. He’s full of warmth, charm, and occasional menace. The movie is a reminder of how good he can be. Kevin Bacon, as the lead prison guard, is quite astounding as well, doing a lot with his eyes and his walk and the inflection of his voice. It’s one of those performances where I found myself wondering why he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. This is also one of those mid-90s pictures where you feel like everyone is in it — not just stars like De Niro, Pitt, Hoffman, and Bacon, but up and comers like Ron Eldard and Billy Crudup, child actors like Brad Renfro, and character actors who would become beloved for their TV roles later like John Slattery, Wendell Pierce, and James Pickens, Jr.
Yet even the cast can’t save Sleepers from being sleep-inducing, particularly as it drags towards its “happy” conclusion.
Sleepers. Wr./Dir. Barry Levinson, based on the book by Lorenzo Carcaterra. Perf. Kevin Bacon, Brad Renfro, Brad Pitt, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Minnie Driver. 147 minutes. Universal Pictures, 1996.