Thursday, November 14, 2013

From My Collection: Sleepers Movie Review

Back in 1996 I was truly taken in by Barry Levinson’s Sleepers, adapted from Lorenzo Carcaterra’s allegedly autobiographical novel relating his experiences as a boy growing up in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, becoming the victim of terrible physical and sexual abuse at a boys’ reform school, and the revenge he and his friends exacted upon their tormentors as adults years later. When the book was published and then later when the film was released, there were many who questioned the validity of the story. There is no independent record of any of the events described. Of course juvenile records are expunged and Carcaterra claims he changed locations, which offers reasonable explanations as to why journalists were unable to unearth any court records similar to what takes place in the second half of the story. Just looking at it in terms of sheer believability, the first half involving Carcaterra (his character goes by the nickname Shakes) and his three best friends as adolescents is selling something so much easier to swallow than the revenge-filled latter half.

Shakes’ friends are John, Tommy, and Michael (Brad Renfro). They aren’t unlike any other kids in the neighborhood. Some are exposed to regular abuse at home, they play stickball, pal around with a neighborhood girl (a character, played as an adult by Minnie Driver, that feels tacked on, serving little purpose other than to avoid having an entirely male cast), and they serve as altar boys under the tutelage of Father Bobby (Robert De Niro) when they’re not causing a stir with a nun’s clacker during mass. Such minor pranks give way to a far greater one that nearly kills a man and lands them all with year-long stints in reform school, where Sean Nokes (Kevin Bacon) leads a team of three other guards in systematic and almost ritual abuse of the boys.

The childhood half of the story is related from the perspective of Shakes as  young man of about 28, narrated and played later by Jason Patric. He imbues the story with the wistful tone of innocence lost and desperation to return to a time in his life when he wasn’t haunted by the nightmares of what came to pass, a time when two of his best friends were not yet contract killers driven by similar nightmares. The absence of emotion in his monotonous voice provides a hint as to the ancillary effects of such abuse. As a tale of childish indulgences giving way to grown up angst and of boys eager to reach adulthood without realizing what they’re asking for, the first half could have made a wonderful stand-alone film. Levinson directs with that nostalgic flair he brought to Diner and even Bugsy to some extent. It’s the second part that adds tremendous weight, catharsis, and a bittersweet reunion during which these four old friends get to forget about the troubles, both past and present, for a night.

The crux of the second part is a murder trial. John and Tommy have grown into Manhattan gang members played by the young newcomers Ron Eldard and Billy Crudup. They wind up on trial after coming across Nokes in a bar and shooting him dead. Michael, now an assistant District Attorney, played by Brad Pitt, uses the opportunity to take down the other three abusers while losing the case on purpose to get his friends an acquittal. It’s a complex plan that involves well-researched dossiers on two of the guards and leaving in place an ineffective alcoholic defense attorney (Dustin Hoffman) who Michael knows is likely to willingly go along with being fed his entire line of defense including questions for witnesses.

It may be hard to imagine either part of the story working independently of the other, but it’s certainly most grounded through the first 80 minutes. This is, I dare say, a truly American story. Of course there are stories of abuse, revenge, and friendship elsewhere in the world, but Sleepers gets beyond that to build a community. Hell’s Kitchen is depicted here as a neighborhood where everyone looks out for each other. These four boys stick together like glue, Father Bobby would do anything for them, including threatening an abusive stepfather or possibly committing perjury. There’s a local mafia kingpin, respected and feared by many, who is a different kind of protective father figure to boys whose actual fathers are either absent or lacking some key component of compassion and guidance. But everyone works to protect their own in the end. It’s also a distinctly New York story. Levinson was not accustomed to making New York films. He’s a Baltimore man and you can see in Sleepers that he borrows a great deal from Scorsese, from an elaborate opening tracking shot to the soundtrack that features old time rock and roll hits. When you’re out of you element, working with subject matter involving New York street life, mob hits, and shady under dealings, why not crib from the man who wrote the book on that kind of filmmaking? Those little elements are a shorthand way of signaling, especially from the very first shot of the film, what kind of movie to expect.

Sleepers is a great story whether it’s true or not, but I guess the label helps people with suspension of disbelief. This story can take you back to a childhood of endless summers of running amok. It is universal in its depiction of growing up fast and leaving youth behind, and of the ways our early experiences shape us, never abandoning us through the whole of our lives.

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