Sleepers

How often do you see a star-packed mainstream film whose focus is the sexual abuse of children in the penal system? Sleepers was not a resounding success upon its release, perhaps the material was deemed a bit too controversial for the time. Regardless it’s a provocative film that not only has an unorthodox story to tell, but also convincingly presents New York City (1960-1980) as what it was: a kindler, gentler place with a not so kind and not so gentle number of unspoken truths. Abuse of power—against children, women, minorities and gays—was roundly tolerated and systematically excused.

When four adolescents decide to play a prank that turns unexpectedly deadly, they’re sent to a prison where childhood is stripped away and damaged minds and souls are the only thing left behind. What will happen when two of these sexually abused boys serendipitously meet their primary tormentor many years later?

The recognizable names in this film are a who’s who of the entertainment industry. Robert De Niro is Father Bobby, a representative of the church—whose also from the hood in which he presides: Hell’s Kitchen, New York City. Father Bobby has watched the abused boys grow, shared their stories, knows their families, and listened to their confessions. Will he be available to support them in a court of law—even if it necessitates him doing something that goes against his faith?

Dustin Hoffman is Danny Snyder, a beyond-his-prime alcoholic, substance abusing lawyer who wants to make good: this one last time. Hoffman is superb: his twitching, stuttering, damaged character study is on point and lasting. Brad Pitt is Michael, an emotionally involved defense attorney. Celebrated, in large part, for his movie star good looks, he’s still an engaging and sensitive actor. So is Jason Patric as Shakes, a man who finds himself on trial for a vengeful violent act. The casting director for this film must have liked good looking male performs as even the supporting male cast: the young boys—and then the young boys as adults—all look like they were pulled from a modeling catalogue. Actress Minnie Driver as Carol, one of the abused boys’ girlfriends, is lost in a sea of male pulchritude.

And then there’s Kevin Bacon as Sean Nokes, the sadistic “white trash” security guard who demands (on-screen and in no uncertain words) “blow jobs” from the young boys he oversees. No beauty king, at least not in this film, Bacon is incredibly hate-worthy: despicable: greasy haired, dead-eyed, and resoundingly repulsive.

Acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert wrote a questioning review of Sleepers. He discussed what he believed was the picture’s latent homophobia: a calculating story that wouldn’t resonate if it didn’t focus on what (Lorenzo Carcaterra’s) screenplay presents as the most abhorrent thing that could ever happen to any male: homosexual activity. Ebert’s reservations have merit: especially today. Still, Sleepers is worth new consideration: if only for its flat-out daring.

Director/Producer Barry Levinson (Wag The Dog, Rain Man) takes on disturbing subject matter and brings it home; John Williams’ haunting score punctuates every single scene; and Michael Ballhaus’ cinematography will leave you longing for a New York City now long, and forever, gone.

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Josiah Howard

Josiah Howard is the author of four books including “Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide” (now in a fourth printing). His writing credits include articles for the American Library of Congress, The New York Times and Readers Digest. A veteran of more than one hundred radio broadcasts, Howard also lectures on cinema and is a frequent guest on entertainment news television.

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