Opened: October 18, 1996 | Rated: R
"Sleepers" is a movie of exacting and meticulous revenge. Revenge movies are a simple lot -- all audiences usually need is an appeal to the right instincts, anger and empathy, and they will play along.
But "Sleepers," about four men from Hell's Kitchen who avenge their boyhood loss of innocence at the hands of reform school guards, goes far beyond a simple formula. It explores whole lives, capturing terror, shame, vulnerability and the burning, fleeting satisfaction of retribution. And it leaves it's audience speechless.
Adapted by director Barry Levinson ("Bugsy," "Rain Man"), "Sleepers" opens in a perfectly-rendered 1966 with a tour of the rough lives the four men lead as children. Complete with domestic violence and petty crime these kids have one roll model -- Father Bobby, a unorthodox, street smart priest played by Robert De Niro -- who tries to steer them straight against the odds.
On a hot, still, city day, childhood mischief turns deadly when the boys steal a hot dog cart and push it down a subway stairwell, killing a man and trading whatever security they had in their unstable world for a turn in the clink.
But the sympathy card isn't played until they are beaten and sexually assaulted by a group of prison guards lead by Kevin Bacon, in a paticularly creepy performance.
The assaults are brief, handled on the screen emotionally rather than visually, and driving home the point without being offensively graphic.
Fifteen years later, two of the boys, now gang toughs, come across former guard Bacon in a bar and revert to their scared younger selves before mustering the anger to kill him on the spot. The vulnerability that comes out in the faces of these hardened men is one of the strongest images in "Sleepers" and strikes at the kind of depth and attention to character that drives this film.
The rest of "Sleepers" is a complex and risky conspiracy, with one of the four boys who is now an assistant district attorney (Brad Pitt) prosecuting his old chums while at the same time secretly plotting not only their acquittal but vengeance on every guard that hurt them at that school so many years before.
Narrated by Jason Patric ("Rush"), as the only member of the foursome who has come to terms with his past, the audience is guided through a maze of well-mapped twists that turn the trial into an indictment against the abusive guards they were forced to tolerate as delinquent prisoners.
"Sleepers" is so complex that describing it hardly leaves room to argue it's technical merits and it's bounty of memorable performances.
Suffice to say "Sleepers" will be swimming in Oscar nominations. De Niro will likely geta nod, paticularly for the scene in which Father Bobby is asked to provide a false alibi for the killers after being told the whole story of the injustices they suffered at the reform school. The scene has only muted dialogue, and is mostly close-ups of De Niro's reactions to the horrors he is hearing. Dustin Hoffman, who relishes his role as the older boys drunkard defense lawyer, is another probable nominee.
Director of photography Michael Ballhaus is certainly Oscar-bound. Resplendent with shadowy black and white flashbacks (in one scene a memory is projected on a character's hands as he cries -- a brilliant visual stroke) and bold shots of the younger boys' faces super-imposed on the older men, the visuals serve to highlight the dizzying emotions delivered throughout "Sleepers."
And while Brad Pitt probably isn't a contender, he certainly has another performance he can point to when accused of being nothing but a pretty face.
In its last few minutes of "Sleepers" one character is conspicuously missing, and it will nag at you when the credits roll. But in perspective this is a minor infraction in what is thus far the paragon movie of 1996.