Remember that time Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Brad Pitt and Kevin Bacon made a crime-drama together? Perhaps not. Sleepers (1996) was a moderate hit at the box office and received ‘good’ reviews, but (unless you rigorously sift through your local HMV’s DVD section) you’re unlikely to be exposed to it. Of course, all those cast members have made far superior pictures, but Sleepers’ greatness is sordidly overlooked and in desperate need of a new audience.
Beginning in the 1960s in Hell’s Kitchen, the story chronicles the life of four young boys (Shakes, Tommy, John and Michael). After running errands for a gangster, the quartet of friends end up on the wrong side of the law where they are sent to a prison for young males. They are repeatedly abused, raped and tormented by the despicable guards there, led by Kevin Bacon’s Nokes. Eventually released, the boys emerge as damaged adults until they get a brilliant opportunity for revenge.
The cast shines: Robert De Niro’s Father Bobby is his most likeable and caring character put to screen, the sadly forgotten and criminally underused Jason Patrics excels as adult Shakes, and Kevin Bacon is pure evil in his most hissable role. Nokes instantly joins the esteemed pantheon of the screen’s most hated characters, with Dolores Umbridge, Percy Wetmore and Joffrey Baratheon for company. If you can’t tolerate him in the EE adverts, then this performance might just lead to a shattered TV screen. For a revenge film to work, the audience needs to want it as much as the characters, and Sleepers will have you baying for blood too.
But this is not a revenge film like Gladiator or John Wick; violence is not the aim for the four men. Instead the retribution they seek is done legally via the courts. It is a refreshing and sophisticated narrative turn, emphasising an acceptable form of vengeance for a change. Enter Brad Pitt’s adult Michael (who, miraculously, becomes a district attorney after his prison sentence) and Dustin Hoffman’s grubby, alcoholic lawyer who both work in conjunction to secure the desired outcome in the courtroom. Both actors deliver strong performances, but Pitt, whose character conceals his childhood trauma behind an impervious emotional wall, is a compelling mix of tortured soul and charismatic orator that paved the way for the rest of his career.
Sleepers is a troubling, often uncomfortable experience. Its refusal to shy away from the abuse scenes boosts the desire for comeuppance and it leads to some compelling drama: Shakes’ heart-breaking confession to De Niro’s paternal priest of the horrors him and his friends suffered is potent and it leads to a fascinating character dilemma: will a priest swear on the Bible but give a fake testimony in order to do the right thing? It is these little slivers of drama that elevate this under-appreciated film.
If the cast (which also includes Minnie Driver, Bruno Kirby and Billy Crudup) proved tempting, then the film’s crew should seal a desire to watch Sleepers. Directed and written by Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Good Morning, Vietnam), scored by John Williams and shot by Michael Ballhaus (Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, The Departed) it is an impressive production.
Perhaps overshadowed by fellow legal films such as A Few Good Men and Philadelphia, as well as prison films such as The Green Mile and American History X, it’s a camouflaged picture that fuses prison drama with courtroom antics, and trauma with catharsis. A searing reminder of the pitfalls of incarceration and the wielding of power by people who should be as detained as much as those they abuse, this is a profound, relevant drama 24 years on.
Sleepers, directed by Barry Levinson, is available now via Blu-ray, DVD, and digital streaming platforms.