Four boys from Hell's Kitchen face unspeakable punishment after injuring a man during a juvenile prank. Each survives, but must carry the burden of his torment into adulthood. Sleepers, from Director Barry Levinson, is a deliberate, well-acted drama that culminates in a lengthy courtroom trial. Kevin Bacon, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Brad Pitt, Billy Crudup, Minnie Driver and Jason Patric all are excellent, and Sleepers poses some tough questions about sexual abuse and retribution.
Lorenzo "Shakes" Carcaterra (Joseph Perrino/Jason Patric), Michael Sullivan (Brad Renfro/Brad Pitt), Tommy Marcano (Jonathan Tucker/Billy Crudup) and John Reilly (Geoffrey Wigdor/Ron Eldard) bond on the streets of Hell's Kitchen, New York City, during the 1960s. Each works for local gangster King Benny (Vittorio Gassman) running small, non-violent errands. The church is important in the boys' lives, especially Father Bobby (Robert De Niro), a young priest who looks out for the neighborhood's sons. These are good kids who spend summers playing ball in the park, swimming and sunbathing on the roof of their apartment building. Home life is tough, and the film hints that the Irish-American culture at the time accepted domineering, abusive fathers and subservient mothers as the norm.
One day the boys decide to prank a hotdog vendor by stealing food and pushing his cart away. The tables turn when the boys let the cart tumble down a set of subway stairs, gravely injuring an elderly man. Each is sentenced to serve time at the Wilkinson School for Boys, which is more jail than learning institute. There, the sadistic guards, led by the particularly ruthless Sean Nokes (Kevin Bacon), sexually and physically abuse the boys. Father Bobby visits often, but Nokes threatens the boys with dire consequences should they tell their mentor what is going on at Wilkinson.
The day comes when the boys are released, and the film moves forward in time. Shakes lives in the city, Michael is an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, and John and Tommy are small-time gangsters. The pair has a chance encounter with Nokes at a bar that turns violent, which brings about the courtroom drama. Shakes is determined to get John and Tommy off, so he hires washed up attorney Danny Snyder (Dustin Hoffman) and asks Michael and longtime mutual friend and social worker Carol (Minnie Driver) for help.
After making a long line of great films that includes Rain Man and Good Morning, Vietnam and concludes with Sleepers, Levinson sort of fell off as a director, but his work here is solid. Sleepers, which is based on a novel by the real Lorenzo Carcaterra, is a kind of thoughtful, patient drama rarely made today. It's a film that relies on its actors and script to sell itself instead of cheap twists and melodrama. The entire principal cast does an excellent job, particularly the kids that portray the young main characters. Hoffman is also strong as the alcoholic attorney Snyder, and De Niro gives a great, effortless performance.
As straightforward as it is, Sleepers isn't perfect. The film runs a long 147 minutes, and it could have used some tightening, particularly in the home stretch. The behind-the-scenes action at the trial is a bit far-fetched, too, and Michael's conduct would likely cost him his job and his liberty in real life. There is also a pre-credits disclaimer for the State of New York to deny that these events ever happened. The lingering feeling I had after watching Sleepers certainly wasn't one of hope. The film is not particularly optimistic, and it explicitly states that not all of the Hell's Kitchen boys live happily ever after. In doing so it serves as a reminder of the many people abused by those who are supposed to protect them. Sleepers makes for good conversation about the grey area between right and wrong, and it makes clear that there are no easy answers.
I am happy to report that Warner Brothers' 2.40:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer for Sleepers looks surprisingly good. The print is completely free of dirt, debris and damage, and the Blu-ray provides a clean, crisp image. Sleepers is not a heavily stylized film, and some of Levinson's shots appear flat, but, despite this muted look, detail and texture remain strong. Blacks are consistently solid, and shadows never overwhelm the characters. Skin tones are mostly natural but appear slightly pink in some shots. Minimal digital noise reduction may have been used on some shots, as I noticed a few faces that seemed overly smooth, but this is not a pervasive issue. Sleepers is not a grainy film, but I don't think this is the result of digital tinkering. Overall, Sleepers looks quite good for a catalog title.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is appropriate for the dialogue-heavy film, and conversation is consistently clear. There are some directional effects and ambient noises that travel into the surrounds, but this is a front-loaded affair. There are a few bombastic effects, such as a percussive thunderclap, and these have some real power behind them. The score is weighty and occasionally overwhelming, though this may have been the intent of the filmmakers. A French Dolby Digital 5.1 track and a Spanish 2.0 stereo track are also included, as are English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles.
The only extra is the film's theatrical trailer.
Director Barry Levinson's Sleepers tackles some tough issues, namely the systematic physical and sexual abuse inflicted upon four Hell's Kitchen boys sent to a youth correctional facility. A two-act beast, Sleepers turns into a courtroom drama in which stars Dustin Hoffman, Brad Pitt and Billy Crudup give strong performances. Sleepers is a thoughtful, well-crafted drama. Warner Brothers' Blu-ray is barebones, but the picture and sound quality of the film is good. Recommended.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.