Lorenzo Carcaterra’s “nonfiction” bestseller Sleepers reads like a movie, which may be why (A) its veracity has been questioned and (B) a film version is almost unnecessary. Here we have the story of four Hell’s Kitchen boys who go to reform school, endure months of torture, and grow up to be haunted men who take revenge on their tormentors. Perfect movie material. Yet the movie Barry Levinson has made from it feels less true and vivid than Carcaterra’s snappy prose. For one thing, when you watch it as a movie, you can’t help recalling other movies that did it better. The Hell’s Kitchen footage is right out of GoodFellas (cinematographer Michael Ballhaus shot both films). The reform-school stuff is Shawshank Redemption Jr. The climactic trial is John Grisham. And so on. The film makes Carcaterra’s story seem as fake as his detractors say it is.
After a stupid prank that hospitalizes an old man, the boys are sent to Wilkinson, a notoriously harsh institution. The neighborhood priest, Father Bobby (Robert De Niro), is an alumnus of Wilkinson and knows what happens to boys who land there. But he’s powerless to stop the guards, led by the sadistic Nokes (Kevin Bacon in full sicko mode), from beating and raping the boys routinely.
Cut to fifteen years later, 1981. The nightmare lives on in the memories of the boys, now grown men. The Carcaterra character, nicknamed “Shakes” (Jason Patric), works at a newspaper. The other three men are on different sides of the law: Michael (Brad Pitt) is a DA, while John (Ron Eldard) and Tommy (Billy Crudup) are swaggering hit-men. One night, John and Tommy happen across the now-broken-down Nokes in a bar. This coincidence, and the swift vengeance that follows, feel so unlikely and movie-ish that it might actually have happened this way. John and Tommy are arrested, and Michael takes the case against them. Yes, you read correctly. Michael and Shakes hatch a plan to get their friends off and put Wilkinson on trial. They hire inept lawyer Danny Snyder (Dustin Hoffman) to act as the pair’s defense. Hoffman and De Niro are fine individually, but I wish Levinson had let them share more screen time; there are exactly two fleeting shots of these legends together in the same frame. (Heat, with De Niro and Al Pacino, made the same mistake.)
I didn’t believe the trial in the book, and I don’t buy it in the movie. What court would allow lawyers to throw a trial so blatantly? Michael is supposed to be pretending to prosecute his friends, but I lost count of how many times he should have yelled “Objection” just to keep up appearances. (Does the title refer to the judge and jury?) I also found myself thinking (which I didn’t when reading the book) that, even before their murder of Nokes, John and Tommy were cold-blooded hit-men — presumably guilty of killing many other people who were not leering child-rapists. Shakes and Michael (and probably Father Bobby) endured the same abuse. They didn’t become killers. The point of Sleepers might be to show us why. But almost everything in it, true or not, plays as a cliche. Barry Levinson does a competent job, but he works best with material that isn’t necessarily the stuff of movies, like Diner. There’s not much he can do with Sleepers. It was a better movie as a book.