Review: Sleepers (1996)

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“A number of the inmates, as tough as they acted during the day, would often cry themselves to sleep at night. There were other cries, too. Different from those full with fear and loneliness. They were low and muffled, the sounds of pain and anguish.Those cries can change the course of a life. They are cries that once heard, can never be erased from the memory.”
– Lorenzo Carcaterra

Four friends from Hell’s Kitchen, New York are inseparable in the mid-1960’s. Lorenzo “Shakes” Carcaterra (Joe Perrino), Michael Sullivan (Brad Renfro), John Reilly (Geoffrey Wigdor) and Thomas “Tommy” Marcano (Jonathan Tucker) spend their days together leisurely, getting up to no good. There is a local priest in the area named Father Bobby Carillo (Robert De Niro) with whom the boys get along really well, and who is constantly looking out for them. Father Bobby’s plans get sidetracked a little when the boys get involved with King Benny (Vittorio Gassman), a local gangster. It is small things at first, but issues arise, and more than ever Father Bobby tries to help the boys out.

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“This is a true story about friendship that runs deeper than blood. This is my story and that of the only three friends in my life that truly mattered.” – Lorenzo Carcaterra

One ridiculously hot summer’s day, the four friends make a massive mistake. Michael sees an opportunity when a hot dog stand opens in the street below, and figures that someone will steal a hot dog. Either they will get away scot-free, or the vendor will chase the thief and all the friends get to eat free then, too. Stealing the hot dog, the vendor chases him down. Michael, John and Tommy all steal some hot dogs, and their plan soon evolves beyond that into stealing the entire cart, which they do. Lorenzo eventually catches up to them and they have to get rid of the cart. Taking it to the subway station, they wish to hold it on top of the flight of stairs and give the vendor enough time to grab it, giving them all the time that they need to escape the man unscathed and well fed. Instead, the cart slips and damn near kills a man. The boys are sentenced to serve time at the Wilkinson Home for Boys. Father Bobby tried everything he could to get the sentences suspended, but the best he could do was get them shortened. Their lives will be irrevocably changed.

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“You got rules and you got discipline. That’s the beginning of the story and that’s the end of the story. Do we understand each other?” – Sean Nokes

The boys go to Wilkinson’s, where everything they expected gets shattered. Sean Nokes (Kevin Bacon), Adam Styler (Lennie Loftin), Henry Addison (Jeffrey Donovan) and Ralph Fergusen (Terry Kinney) break the boys down. They are raped, molested and seriously abused. They learn early on that resistance is futile, though from time to time they try to fight back. Naturally, it ends in disaster and pain for them. Father Bobby comes to visit where the rest of the boys’ families don’t at their behest, and Lorenzo pleads with Father Bobby not to come back and see them. The boys swear to keep their entire ordeal a secret. Years later Tommy Marcano (Billy Crudup) and John Reilly (Ron Eldard) encounter Nokes in a restaurant and they exact their revenge, shooting him to death with a lot of witnesses present. Michael (Brad Pitt) is now a district attorney and calls a meeting with Lorenzo (Jason Patric), who is now a newspaper reporter. Their revenge plan has been set into motion, maybe a little different than they may have planned, but either way it is underway. Michael wishes to prosecute the case, though underhandedly he is planning to mess up the whole affair, making sure that Tommy and John walk, though it cannot look that way.

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“Revenge. Sweet lasting revenge. Now it’s time for all of us to get a taste.” – Michael Sullivan

King Benny is called in for assistance, and it is all hands on deck. Michael has been researching for years, and is ready to play the role of prosecutor as well as secret defender. Danny Snyder (Dustin Hoffman) is representing the boys, and is doing pretty much everything that Michael has put together to ensure that the case goes smoothly. Tommy, John and the neighbourhood have no idea that the entire trial is a setup, and Michael has become public enemy number one. Will he be able to free his friends while exact the revenge that they have all thirsted for for so many years? Will the entire truth about what happened at Wilkinson’s ever come out? Will the neighbourhood band together to help the boys, no matter what the situation? Will the Wilkinson guards ever really pay for their indiscretions?

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“Father Bobby would have made a good hitman. It’s a shame we lost him to the other side.” – King Benny

Sleepers scores a 6.5/10 for me. This film had that aspect of making me so damn angry to see what was going on, no matter what is said and done at the end of the day. Watching the four cheeky friends growing up was nice, their stupid mistakes and their good sides. Robert De Niro was great for his role as the Catholic priest. It is like he was designed for the role and the role for him. He didn’t pretend to be too pious but also nothing disrespectful. It was a fresh approach to priests in film, and I can certainly imagine that it would garner a better response in real life if you had someone that was more like that. I did feel that he was rather underused though. However, all the funny stuff was over with the moment that those boys went to juvie. Dammit, so was my sense of humour. There are very few things that can really set my teeth on edge and my temper off in a moment, but child molesting is one of them. The brutality suffered at the hands of those guards was disgusting to witness, though thank goodness they didn’t show everything, just enough to get that rise out of you. Anger and sadness is what comes to the fore watching their incarceration and their inability to do anything about it. Kevin Bacon was good in his role, which also sort of depressed me, if you know what I mean? I never wanted to see him as one of those totally nasty wastes of life. I felt vindication for those boys when they shot and killed Nokes, though I honestly feel that he got off way too early. Brad Pitt impressed me as his role as attorney as well as double agent with his own solo play, and needs to be given credit for that. The film shows a lot of the underworld as people don’t usually see it: dangerous, but with purpose. Their own neighbourhood and the inhabitants that would be protected, the dangers that are ever present, but also the way that people know what is right and wrong and what they can and cannot do as well as all the fun that is also to be had with your people, people that are shunned by the world but are yours nonetheless. I would recommend this for a watch, but be warned that there is plenty to get edgy about.

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16 thoughts on “Review: Sleepers (1996)

  1. Mark Walker says:

    I can argue too much with you here Zoe. I gave it a 7. For the most part, I really enjoyed it but the end courtroom scenario felt forced and didn’t entirely convince. Great performances though, and I too was particularly taken with DeNiro’s very appealing work.

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    • Zoë says:

      Thanks Mark. Yeah, everything was going fine and then it just lost momentum. I originally gave it a 7, then thought over it a little bit and just figured it is not really right. The performances were strong though, and definitely worth noting. De Niro was excellent in here, wish they had utilised him more though!

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  2. keith7198 says:

    My wife has never been able to like Kevin Bacon because of how despicable he was in Sleepers. He was so believable. It’s a detestable character and my wife has never gotten over it. LOL

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  3. lauren says:

    It always makes me emotional this film, it may be manipulative but the acting is so strong-from the boys and the adults. De Nero and Bacon are both outstanding in this film showing the good and evil in the world. Great review!

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  4. Tom says:

    Just added this to a list of Must-See’s. Mostly because I’m now reading some of these things about Kevin Bacon in this. Sounds intense! I’ve had a thirst for difficult movies as of late. . .

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