Warner Bros. // 1996 // 148 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Daniel Kelly (Retired) // September 15th, 2011
Four friends have made a mistake that will change their lives forever.
Sleepers is an occasionally excellent drama that grapples with some tough themes. Directed by the once great Barry Levinson (Rain Man), Sleepers is overlong and suffers through some less than inspired casting choices, but still comes out the other end a compelling and moderately respectable endeavour. As with most pictures that deal with child abuse, Sleepers isn't exactly light entertainment, but there's definite worth in this somewhat forgotten slice of '90s filmmaking.
After a prank in Hell's Kitchen spins out of control, four young friends are sentenced to spend several years at the Wilkinson School for Boys. The institution is designed to help repair the outlook of young offenders, but unfortunately what goes on behind closed doors is much less noble. The guards, led by the twisted Nokes (Kevin Bacon, X-Men: First Class), brutalize the inmates, scarring them with vicious beatings and horrid sexual assaults. Fast forward a decade. Two of the gang are accused of murdering Nokes, the court oblivious to their motivation for the deed. The other two boys, Lorenzo (Jason Patric, The Losers) and Michael (Brad Pitt, Inglourious Basterds), realize the hearing is a great opportunity to gain revenge for the months of suffering they endured, roping in childhood mentor Father Bobby (Robert De Niro, Raging Bull) to help them enact their cunning strategy.
At 148 minutes Sleepers is a hefty sit, the picture never quite validating its monumental length. Granted the film sprawls out over a vast timeframe, but there's not quite enough narrative meat in the screenplay to excuse Levinson's relaxed editorial stance. The opening half (based in Wilkinson) is harrowing, the picture doing a fine job of forming the characters, before packing them off to their own personal hell. Bacon's frosty turn as Nokes adds an aura of genuine threat, and the efforts of the young cast are appreciatively natural. The tide turns somewhat in the second section however, with the courtroom aspects drying up the pace slightly; Jason Patric's unconvincing leading contribution not helping matters much either. I suppose Sleepers is a movie of two halves, albeit neither of those happens to be offensively bad. On the contrary, one of them is just really good.
During the opening sequences in Hell's Kitchen, Levinson builds up an authentic aura of community, infusing the picture with a youthful energy. This contrasts skillfully with the world depicted at Wilkinson, one of lifeless routine and dull visuals. The actual scenes of abuse and rape are staged pretty unremarkably, but the build-up evidenced is nauseatingly unsettling, Sleepers burrowing under the skin with what is implied rather than overtly shown. Patric and Pitt aren't much use during the film's latter stages (both stilted) but the supporting cast handles the material somewhat better. Minnie Driver (Hope Springs) borders on irritating in a thankless role, but Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman are on top form. The former provides gravitas here that we haven't seen from him in quite some time.
Ultimately Sleepers is a good film, but not necessarily great. Its bloated running hurts the product considerably; whilst other small niggles also notably detract from the viewing experience. I would recommend checking it out for the disturbingly harsh beginning, but the courtroom climax is relatively disposable. The picture quality on this release is average, but what's more insulting is that Warner has only included a trailer, leaving this as a rare example of a vanilla Blu-Ray. Surely that's not acceptable.
Not Guilty. Just not perfect either.
Review content copyright © 2011 Daniel Kelly; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 148 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated R