Sleepers is a revenge movie that, being epic in scope, serves its comeuppance cold and without much conventional morality. We are asked to succumb to our good senses in favor of passion and a they deserved it mentality — and, as emotionally inclusive and brutal as it is, we go along with its darkened ethics, its depiction of a world where corruption can sometimes make good in the minds and hearts of those who can handle it.
So Sleepers is a difficult movie to give yourself to, in part because it goes by the rationality that a party of wrongs can make a single right, and that it is competently mounted (its acting and dialogue are well-conceived) but not dramatically nuanced enough to change our perspective of the outsider into the empathizer. Everything is presented to us at a distance — despite its epic length, the characters feel more like markers in a compelling story than they do three-dimensional characters. Such a characteristic is crucial when our entertainment depends on an emotional tug.
But the plot slaps us in the face on a regular basis, never letting our sympathy slip, and for that, I must give it credit. Its story crosses generations, beginning in the mid-1960s. There, we meet a group of four preteen boys, who make the most of living in the slums of Hell’s Kitchen. Their bond is strong and their loyalty to one another is mighty — one could even say that they’re brothers, minus familial pressure and a competitive lifestyle. Local priest Father Bobby (Robert De Niro) notices their potential, doing everything he can to push them in the direction of a fruitful adult life rather than a crime-riddled one like so many in the neighborhood.
Strong-handed guidance, however, can only go so far in an area where abusive husbands, thieves, and murderers run wild, and it doesn’t take long for the quartet to start running quick, somewhat harmless errands for King Benny (Vittorio Gassman), a mafia gangster who holds much power over the area.
Being young and foolish, the boys don’t understand the risks that could come with working for such a fellow, so we aren’t surprised when one of the jobs, which entails that they push a hot dog vendor’s cart down a flight of stairs, seriously injures a passerby and lands them in reformatory school. But just as we expect this to continue being a rosy, slightly gritty, coming-of-age story, things quickly take a downturn: as soon as the friends land on school grounds, so begins months of sexual abuse and torture at the hands of the guards, particularly the devious Nokes (Kevin Bacon).
Worried that no one will believe them, they vow secrecy, the memories taking a toll on them years later. After their stay ends, Sleepers jumps to 1981, where half the boys have grown up to be stand-up guys, the others criminals. Leader of the pack Lorenzo “Shakes” Carcaterra (Jason Patric) is a rising journalist; his right-hand man, Michael Sullivan (Brad Pitt), is a successful attorney. But the other two, Tommy Marcano (Billy Crudup) and John Reilly (Ron Eldared), who have remained close friends through the years, have taken to crime as a living; when they see Nokes at a bar, they shoot him, without mercy.
Seeing the opportunity at hand, Michael and Shakes decide to orchestrate a methodical plot that will keep their friends out of jail and land the guards who destroyed their lives years ago in serious trouble. It’s a morally bankrupt idea, sure, but it’s worth it — molesters are not individuals who deserve compassion.
Its vigilant vengeance is not so much the issue with Sleepers; the issue is that it’s nearly 150 minutes long, and contains plenty of moments that do little to retain our interest. The story builds with horrific occurrences, drawing us in, but it is done so clinically and without much dramatic coating; it has the feeling of a tell-all, involving but also thin — it’s too long and it often drags. We are, of course, happy with the ending, which leaves Tommy and John unscathed for their revenge — Nokes had it coming, being scum of the Earth almost satanic in stature — but we cannot deny that the film has moments during which we doubt the need for such pandering length.
The acting is spotless, though, and Barry Levinson, writing and directing as economically as someone can with so much content, makes Sleepers conventionally “good,” which is passable depending on your outlook. Yet, I never found myself much enthusiastic — here is a film in which we should be cheering once its ending comes around. The characters, unfortunately, are much too shallowly sketched to cause bewilderment. And doesn’t it seem a little strange to you that Lorenzo Carcaterra, the real-life central character and writer of the novel of the same name, was so willing to put work out there that exposes him as a conspirator and a condoner of perjury? It’s for a good cause, but revenge has consequences — Kill Bill isn’t the real deal, after all. C+