Director Barry Levinson’s 1996 “Sleepers” is a rich and compelling movie that straddles many genres from the coming of age, to courtroom, to the thriller, to revenge. “Sleepers” is a movie for anyone with a taste for cinema that explore childhood innocence and the end of it at the hands of pure evil. Director Levinson’s film tells the story of young boys in the 1960’s slums of Hell’s Kitchen in Queens. Bonded due to their religious loyalties and their relationship with patriarchal Father Bobby (DeNiro in one of the last great roles of his career), they often find themselves constantly walking the line between saintly and pure criminal.
Bobby is at a constant battle to keep the boys out of trouble and in to the hands of their God while the boys are always tempted by the crime world thanks to character Shakes’ tales of heroic gang members and their affiliation with mob boss King Benny (the brilliant Vittorio Gassman). He endures the young boys company, and keeps them at arm’s length hopefully to introduce them to his world. Fate would eventually have a hand as the young boys, prone to misdeeds including a clacker in church, and a confessional, decide one hot Summer day to pull a prank on a hot dog vendor that ends in the loss of an innocent life. Punished, the boys head off to a detention center by in spite of Father Bobby’s best efforts to save them, and they experience horrific events that change their lives forever. Starring the likes of Brad Renfro, Jonathan Tucker among others, they are forced to deal with violent inmates, and tough living conditions.
But that becomes the least of their troubles when the meet guard Sean Nokes (Kevin Bacon at his all time slimiest), a sadistic and amoral enforcer who takes great joy in leading his co-workers in to abusing, torturing, and–in disturbing if implied scenes–raping the boys who seek only to do their time and leave. After struggling with the abuse and praying for their time to be over, the boys’ hardships get ever the more horrific as their sentence runs out. Most of their time in jail is featured through flashbacks told by Jason Patric’s character, as he recalls a disastrous football game with the guards and the prisoners, a gruesome lunch room scene, and a final farewell for the boys that signals the end of their innocence and the loss of their morality even in the face of their strong religious convictions.
Many, many years later we’re re-introduced to the boys (now men), and in a sense of almost divine intervention, Sean Nokes happens in to Hell’s Kitchen and the rest of the narrative centers around the group’s betrayal their own core beliefs and principles to elicit justice in its most primal sense against the men that violated them. As someone who adores revenge films, the final act, while a bit on the fantastic side, plays out beautifully as the boys must come together after years of distance and decide that they have to continue ending the lives of the guards that stole their youths and brutalized them.
There’s a particular turning of the tides star wise here as Jason Patric manages to take center stage as Shakes, learns about the murder and gets in touch with Michael, played by Brad Pitt, now a DA who has to handle the case. Patric is given most of the focus while Pitt plays supporting player, serving only as a sounding board for Patric to bounce dialogue off of. Talented character actors Billy Crudup and Ron Eldard who play John and Tommy have their dramatic moments and sadly just remain in the background during a heavy portion of the courtroom drama involving the guards testifying against the men. “Sleepers” is that drama that views the gray tones of good and evil and what lengths people are willing to go through to re-claim the dignity they lost as children.