Forget the ”controversy,” the is-it-real-or-is-it-a-fraud hype: Sleepers, Barry Levinson’s luridly faithful adaptation of Lorenzo Carcaterra’s 1995 best-seller, may well go down as the movie in which Brad Pitt, Jason Patric, and several other pricey stars are outacted by a bunch of kids. A former tabloid reporter, Carcaterra dished up a ”true story” that’s a veritable hothouse fantasy of sensationalist-potboiler clichés. In this sadomasochistic revenge thriller, four boys growing up in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen during the mid-’60s are sent to hell for real when one of their delinquent pranks turns tragic (a stolen hot-dog stand slips out of their fingers and down some subway stairs, smashing a civilian below). Sentenced to do time in the Wilkinson Home for Boys, they are raped, over and over, by a cabal of stone-faced guards. Yet the boys, having been raised as proud Hell’s Kitchen machos, are locked into silence — not just by their fear of reprisal, but by the shame they feel at having been homosexually violated. Later, as adults, they’re bonded in that shame. That’s when Carcaterra shifts gears, staging a bloody retribution killing followed by a trial so preposterously rigged it makes the most contrived only-in-the-movies courtroom melodrama look like a yawny day on Court TV.
Levinson, who has never shown much taste for the squalid, re-creates Hell’s Kitchen as a rowdy nostalgic daydream, with Lorenzo (Joe Perrino), Michael (Brad Renfro), John (Geoff Wigdor), and Tommy (Jonathan Tucker) reveling in the mean-streets glory of their roughneck Italian-Irish neighborhood, a place where they feel they can get away with anything because the local mob is fearless about protecting its own. The mood of unholy camaraderie is typified by Father Bobby (Robert De Niro), the tough-guy priest who drinks, smokes, even threatens, but whose word is as unimpeachable as the Pope’s. When the boys stage their fatal prank, we feel the horror of a nasty childish lark gone disastrously wrong.
The moment Lorenzo gets to Wilkinson, he’s greeted by Nokes (Kevin Bacon), a guard who leeringly orders him to strip. Sleepers instantly turns into a junior Midnight Express, with the rapes and beatings staged in murky gray light yet served up with ferocious regularity. Bacon plays evil as pure smugness — a vile cartoon. This is moviemaking as exploitation screw tightening, with none of the supple moral inquiry of a child-abuse drama like The Boys of St. Vincent. Still, there’s no denying it works on you. The young actors are superb, particularly Perrino, his cockiness undercut by his frightened saucer eyes, and Wigdor, as vulnerable as a wounded squirrel.
Cut to 1981. The four are now adults, still haunted by their childhood trauma. So when Tommy (Billy Crudup) and John (Ron Eldard), now Hell’s Kitchen hitmen, spy their old tormentor Nokes eating at a restaurant, there’s no hesitation: They pull out their guns and blow him away. But how can they get away with murder? Simple. Michael (Brad Pitt), now an assistant DA, will secretly stage the entire trial, setting up the defendants with a broken-down lawyer (Dustin Hoffman) who’ll recite the questions written for him. What’s more, Michael will prosecute the case himself. Sleepers wants to do something impossible — merge the mournful, drenched-in-shame emotions of child abuse with the huckster gamesmanship of a contraption like The Sting. Yet even if it were possible, the second half of the movie is a disaster of implausibility, most of it narrated in glummer-than-thou voice-over by Jason Patric, who acts mopey with despair. So does Pitt; neither of these two has ever been duller (or looked worse — they seem to be having bad-hair and bad-skin days).
I don’t want to give away too many twists, so perhaps it will suffice to raise a few of the core dramatic issues on which Sleepers founders. How could there not be so much as one scene in which the defendants react to the fact that Michael, their old chum, is now prosecuting them? How could Michael possibly expect to elicit an instant confession from a devious character witness? Who calls a character witness for the deceased, anyway? And why are we expected to give a damn about any of this, considering that (a) the culprit we most loved to hate was killed off halfway through the film, and (b) the alibi provided by the key defense witness could have been arranged without any of Michael’s string-pulling shenanigans? Sleepers has no reality even if it’s ”true.” By the end, the main thing that’s been abused is the audience’s intelligence. C