Top positive review
125 people found this helpful
Solemn drama gets the all-star treatment
on April 8, 2002
(USA - 1996)
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 (Super 35)
Theatrical soundtracks: Dolby Digital / DTS / SDDS
By virtue of its all-star cast, handsome production values and solemn subject matter, Barry Levinson's SLEEPERS was clearly intended as a Major Motion Picture from the outset. Based on the harrowing true-life bestseller by journalist Lorenzo Carcaterra - first published in 1995 - book and film describe the appalling fate of four Hell's Kitchen kids (played as children by Joe Perrino, Brad Renfro, Geoffrey Wigdor and Jonathan Tucker) who, in 1967, were sentenced to confinement in the 'Wilkinson Home for Boys' following a near-fatal accident involving a hot dog vending machine which they had stolen as a prank. Inside the reformatory, all four boys are sexually and emotionally abused by a group of sadistic guards led by the sinister Nokes (Kevin Bacon at his slimiest). More than a decade later, traumatized by their experiences, two of the now grown-up boys (Ron Eldard and Billy Crudup) corner Nokes unexpectedly in a local diner and murder him in cold blood. The other members of the group - one a prosecuting attorney (Brad Pitt), the other an aspiring writer and journalist (Jason Patric) - formulate a daring plan to have their friends acquitted, expiose the reformatory's dark secrets, and take revenge on their abusers...
Such an extraordinary tale was always going to be controversial, and so it proved. Upon release, book and film drew immediate fire from critics who accused author and filmmakers of embellishment and exaggeration, since no records could be found to prove that the trial depicted in the film ever took place within the Manhattan district, or that the Wilkinson Home for Boys ever existed - even though Carcaterra's book (and Levinson's script) makes it clear that most of the names, dates and locations have been changed or fictionalized to protect those involved, and that the records of all children held in institutions like Wilkinson are routinely deleted after seven years. Further scandal ensued when the movie ignited protests from those who believed the story drew unfortunate parallels between pedophilia and homosexuality, thereby reinforcing the worst kind of homophobic stereotype. The point is certainly valid, given Hollywood's shameful mistreatment of gay themes and characters over the years, but SLEEPERS doesn't seek to draw any kind of parallels, unconsciously or otherwise, merely to recreate events described in Carcaterra's book. Besides, monsters are monsters, whoever their victims may be.
As a movie, SLEEPERS is competent, briskly paced, and beautifully acted by a dream cast of old pro's (including Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman in key roles) and a new generation of rising stars. It's an ensemble piece, and the lack of grandstanding - in favor of narrative momentum - is admirable. But while the film is consistently intelligent and engaging, it's drawbacks are significant: The kids are terrific, especially Perrino, but the adults are burdened by the gravity of the subject matter, and Patric's sombre narration seems a little too laidback at times, lacking warmth or even genuine emotion, while John Williams' rambling score clashes resolutely with the film's epic visual sweep. Also, for obvious reasons, the moviemakers were unable to depict the kind of sexual atrocities outlined in the original book, with unfortunate consequences: Here, Nokes' murder seems more like the result of a petulant outburst by a couple of thugs, rather than the inevitable outcome of horrendous physical abuse. And during the subsequent trial, it defies belief that the prosecution's key witness - a former guard at Wilkinson - would incriminate himself so readily on the stand, as depicted here. That said, however, the movie is still a worthwhile entry, but the book is better.