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REVIEW: Sleepers is a harrowing story, true or not. There remains convincing evidence that writer Lorenzo Carcaterra lied in stating that his book is based on actual events, but this is really not important. Any film should be viewed as a work of fiction to some degree, and we should explore the work, not what it is based on.
Four young boys make a terrible mistake while running a prank and end up paying horrendously for their trouble. Incarcerated in a boys reformatory, the are repeatedly molested by guards. Many years later, two of the boys, now gangsters themselves, encounter the lecherous guard’s ringleader and murder him.
Conveniently, the other two boys have traveled better paths. One is journalist and the other is an assistant D.A. They devise a plan that involves Father Bobby (Robert de Niro) that will give them an alibi.
While there is some solid acting, and the story itself is traumatic and engaging, there is a kind of distance to the film that doesn’t quite work. The boys are guilty, and the morality of revenge as reason doesn’t hold up. We feel pity for the boys as youngsters, but feel empty with the eventual outcome.
Scene Setup: Shakes (Jason Patric) is asking Father Bobby to lie on the stand, and is telling him about the horrors the boys faced in the reform school.
Why it Matters: Robert De Niro all the way. There is very little movement in the scene, it is all about the dynamic between Shakes and Father Bobby. It doesn’t even matter what Shakes is saying – in fact his own voice nearly goes mute as music swells and the narration takes over. Even the camera pulls out of the room as if repelled by the horror. Then it settles on Father Bobby and holds for a long, painful minute. Almost imperceptibly, his eyes shift from the unseen Shakes to our own. It is devastating.
More: There are several stand out scenes, and many of the actors give affecting performances, though Brad Pitt, as fine an actor as he is, is miscast. He is hardly convincing as a lawyer and his trademark nonchalance is just off putting. In rewatching the film, we were taken with how well the menace and malice of Kevin Bacon was portrayed, and his transformation into the empty, hollow man (see what we did there?) years later. Jason Patric, playing Shakes, is also very effective, especially in the chosen That Moment In. He holds his own opposite De Niro and there is a fractured quality in his efforts to ask a Father to lie in defense of the savages brought upon himself and his friends. Watch his face as he begins to tell his story. But the scene is all De Niro. As the devout Father, we see him most assuredly question his God. Should he betray his faith to save once innocent boys now turned guilty men?
As we wrote in our first entry, narration in film is lazy. Okay, maybe it’s acceptable in a few documentaries, especially about animals. Heck, if Morgan Freeman doesn’t speak for the penguins, who will? But it is entirely unnecessary otherwise and hand holding exposition is no substitute for storytelling. Sleepers in no exception. Shakes details every important moment in the film, including our selection for That Moment In. It is pointless and irritating, especially since most of what he is saying is happening visually on screen. It’s a style that rarely works.
Levison does a fine job recreating New York in the late 60s, and it’s a joy to soak in the details. The cars and shops, the city streets and atmosphere are–perhaps stylized to fit our romanticized vision of that time–really well done. The young boys are well cast too, and they are fun to watch as they bond and cause general mischief. However, because the opening narration (angry face) told us so, we know something bad is around the corner and when it comes it is entirely ridiculous.
They have stolen a hot dog cart and in an attempt to thwart the haggard but persistent owner, they teeter it on the top edge of a subway stairwell. They lose control and it tumbles down in a cacophony of twisted metal, flying sausage and condiments that would make a NASCAR pileup envious, straight into the most oblivious bystander in the history of cinema. Of course, clever editing and music mask what surely would have warned any normal human being, but our victim fills his role with aplomb, facing the incoming meat missile with wide eyes, mouth agape and the paralyzed stance of a deer in headlights. It was cringe worthy in 1996, and doubly so now. Including the narration. (Sorry. Can’t. Let. It. Go.)
So it’s off to reformatory school and the real tragedy for the boys. Sean Nokes awaits. Kevin Bacon supplies one of the stronger performances. He is dutifully creepy and disturbing in the school scenes and wretchedly miserable years later cowering alone in the diner. While he expresses no remorse for his actions, his body and face betray his guilt. For us, we’ve wondered why the two men looking to take revenge don’t wait outside and at least take some measures to conceal their intent. It’s clearly premeditated as they gather in the stairwell and prepare their weapons. Could they not have followed him or lured him into an alley? We know they’re gangsters, but come on, boys. A little tact. A little panache. A lot of common sense. Also, while the two actors are well cast and do a fitting job as baddies, Bacon is leagues above them. He chews up his scenes with fervor. Dare we say . . . a little footloose. (We know one reader out there is right now wanting to punch us square in the arm).
Let’s talk De Niro. We’re not going to deny his contribution to film. His early work set new standards and his characters defined what an entire genre of films would become. But we also can’t deny that he is basically the same man in every movie and, for us, it is never much more than De Niro being De Niro. He’s entirely in on this of course, and has made a second career exploiting it to sometimes very amusing effect. There are glimmers of the old master in recent work. He was astounding in the Silver Linings Playbook (we’re planning an entry on that).
In Sleepers, it’s initially hard to accept De Niro as a man of the cloth, though his early scenes with the boys are good at establishing his character. He has some effective moments throughout, but we can’t help but wonder if he is packing heat under his vestments.
Our chosen That Moment In really affected us. The scene is wonderfully constructed and Levinson does well staging the characters in the triangulated arrangement with nearly no movement. It retains an element of intimacy while at the same time, through body language (they each are hunched with arms across their waists) there is a distance that cannot be closed. Levinson reveals this by pushing slowing in on each face before pulling the camera back into the next room. He wisely keeps Carol (Minnie Driver) silent, allowing one gentle expression of sadness. This is about Father Bobby.
Rightfully so, he starts out uncomfortably, one hand on his chin, his eyes darting. He certainly must have had some assumptions about why the boys he once knew would murder a man in cold blood. They were gangsters now, probably wrapped up in some nefarious doings that instigated the crime. What he hears is naturally repulsive. Notice the slight twist in his mouth, how his lips are not quite aligned. The words have a stench, a vile taste. And then his eyes settle on Shakes and the long shot starts.
Close-ups like this are not common. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc famously made excellent use of this technique to very stirring effect way back in 1928 (you can watch the entire film on YouTube – do it!) and more recently Tobe Hooper did it with Les Miserables, to far less effect in our opinion. Levinson doesn’t make it a gimmick. It feels entirely natural and in a word: perfect.
While we are not fans of the entire film, Sleepers does have some fine performances and good direction. John William’s score is moody and subtle, never over-taking or intruding on the action, though it is not particularly memorable either. That defines the whole experience. The cast is populated by A-listers and up and comers. Still, it is heavy-handed at times and there is just something off with the entire production. What could have been a truly moving and important story instead falls flat, save a harrowing scene in Father Bobby’s living room.
It’s why when we talk movies, we love that moment in . . . Sleepers.