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Sleepers  

Starring: Kevin Bacon, Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Patric, Brad Pitt, Brad Renfro, Minnie Driver, Ron Eldard, Billy Crudup, Terry Kinney, Bruno Kirby Directed by: Barry Levinson Written by: Barry Levinson Based Upon the Book by Lorenzo Carcaterra

"Sleepers" tells the haunting story of a group of young boys who, after a prank gone awry, are sentenced to serve time at a juvenile detention hall where they are beaten and sexually assaulted by some of the guards. It is also about the subsequent revenge they get years after their release. The story is narrated by one of the boys, Shakes (Jason Patric), as he recounts the incident that led to their imprisonment, the horror they had to endure, and the details of their intricate revenge plot. Narration can be a very effective tool in telling a story on film (i.e. "Amadeus", "Stand By Me") if the narrator learns something from the story he/she is telling or has a point to make by telling his/her story. The narration doesn't serve any real purpose here; it's almost told as some kind of twisted bedtime story.

 

(I'll be discussing some plot points in this paragraph.) Once in the detention hall, the boys are terrorized by the guards, led by the sadistic Sean Nokes (Kevin Bacon). Nokes brutally beats the boys with his baton, forces them to eat off the floor, and even takes them to an isolated room deep beneath the facility where their screams can only be heard by the assailants who feed off of their terror. Eventually, they are released - but the psychological damage has already been done; their lives will never be the same. The story then switches to years later, when the boys are now men. After two of the men (Ron Eldard and Billy Crudup) take revenge on one of the guards as he dines in a local restaurant, Shakes and Michael (Brad Pitt), who is now an assistant District Attorney, devise a scheme to fix the trial. They'll need some help to pull it off, so they recruit a "down-and-out" lawyer (Dustin Hoffman) to defend the boys. They also need a solid, unquestionable alibi, so Shakes turns to Father Bobby (Robert DeNiro), a priest who has been a mentor and close friend to the boys and who loves them like they were his own children - the decision he has to make is a tough one.

The first half of the film is actually pretty good. It tells a tragic story about four innocent boys who made a mistake that would change their lives forever. Just before the vendor's cart accidentally tumbles down the subway stairs, we can hear Shakes' voice-over narration: "To this day, I have no idea why we did it." That's a good line - I could imagine that thought racing through his mind every day since the day it happened. The scenes in the detention hall are effective, too, thanks to the frighteningly real performance from Kevin Bacon. His character's viciousness runs deep within his veins; he's not torturing these boys to work out some repressed feelings, he's doing it for the sheer thrill of listening to them scream.

Where "Sleepers" started to lose me was in the second half. That's where it throws it's emotional core out the window and instead, concentrates on explaining the details of the revenge plot. If you're going to make a movie about revenge, then you should have some angry, fiery, passionate energy that pushes the motives of the characters. The film sets this element up very well in it's first half, but then extinguishes it in the second half, and becomes plot-driven rather than character-driven. There is a scene late in the film where the grown-up Shakes must explain to Father Bobby exactly what happened to him and his friends while locked away. That scene could have been the most powerful scene in the film, but for some reason, director Barry Levinson cuts away from what Shakes is saying, instead using a silly overlapping audio technique while showing us a series of dissolves displaying facial reactions to what is being said. That may be thought of as a "cool" cinematic technique, but it diminishes the raw emotional power of a speech like that. Why do that? When you assemble some of the finest actors in Hollywood, why not let them do what they do best? There is one effective shot in that scene - a static shot held several seconds on Robert DeNiro's face. But the scene could have been so much better I think, if it hadn't tried so hard to be "original".

Writer/director Barry ("Avalon", "Diner") Levinson is a truly gifted filmmaker who takes great chances with his projects, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for directors who take risks. Sometimes, his risky projects work ("Bugsy", "Rain Man"), sometimes they don't ("Jimmy Hollywood", "Disclosure"). With "Sleepers", he has hit middle ground - a film that tells a powerful story of lost youth, but cheats itself out of the emotional crescendo it was hoping for by going for a manipulative ending. Yes, I realize it is based on true events, but I believe a better film could have been made using the same material. As I left the theatre, I couldn't help but think there was a great deal more to this story that I wasn't being let in on.

Copyright 2001 Michael Brendan McLarney Critically Ill

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