Directed by Barry Levinson. Starring Jason Patric, Robert Deniro, Brad Pitt, Kevin Bacon, Dustin Hoffman, Minnie Driver, Brad Renfro, Bruno Kirby. (1996, R, 149 min.)
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Oct. 25, 1996
Sleepers probably won't be as controversial as the book upon which it is based -- Lorenzo Carcaterra's recent bestseller of the same name -- but it's no less implausible. Supposedly a piece of fiction based on real events, the novel caused quite a stir when the veracity of the novelist's roman a clef claims became more than suspect: Its tale of revenge is too pat, too convenient to be believed. Regardless of the likelihood of any basis in truth, however, the film adaptation had the markings of a solid piece of moviemaking: a proven director, great cast, and a story that, despite its improbabilities, is undeniably compelling. So what went awry here? For starters, the film's chronological structure is problematic. Sleepers consists of two inextricably intertwined stories: One focused upon a group of four barely pubescent boys in Hell's Kitchen in the late Sixties, the other upon them as young adults some 15 years later. Because of a stupid prank that almost results in a stranger's death, the teenagers are sent to a reformatory, where they are brutally abused, both physically and sexually, by sadistic guards. Flash forward 15 years to when the four young men -- one is an unambitious newspaper gofer, one is a reclusive lawyer, two are unrepentant career criminals -- still can't shake the memory of the horrible experiences endured at the hands of their tormentors years ago. When the latter two chance upon one of the guards in a restaurant and murder him in cold blood, the opportunity for full vengeance materializes. By laying out in stomach-churning detail the abuses suffered by the boys in the reformatory during the film's first half, however, Levinson's screenplay lacks any measure of suspense; since you already know the harrowing events that have motivated this elaborate scheme of retribution, the only uncertainty lies in wondering whether the strategy for revenge will actually work. And even in that regard, Sleepers is a bust. Somewhat byzantine in execution and confusing in its logic, the film's second half never achieves the catharsis you'd expect. Furthermore, if Levinson intended this film to be a film driven more by character than by plot, then he fails there as well. The boys are terrific -- flesh-and-blood adolescents who are basically good at heart -- but their adult counterparts are ciphers. (As the film's narrator and moral navigator, Patric is a non-presence; maybe he is nothing more than a pretty face, as some allege.) What a more interesting film this would have been had Levinson found a way to integrate the past and the present so that one informed the other. As constructed, however, he's made a lopsided movie.