Untrue to Life 

Sleepers rings hollow as either fact or fiction

Sleepers rings hollow as either fact or fiction

Sleepers, Barry Levinson’s film adaptation of Lorenzo Carcaterra’s book, features much of the author’s original text read in voice-over by Jason Patric. The actor speaks in a sort of rushed mumble, and at first it’s unclear why Levinson would let his star bury the lines in mush. As the movie’s complicated plot begins to unfold, though, the reason for Patric’s lack of articulation emerges—the director wants to keep us from noticing how preposterous the narration really is.

Carcaterra’s book tells the story of four boys growing up in New York’s tough Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in the late ’60s. It follows the foursome as they get sent to reform school for playing a prank that accidentally goes awry; the school, we soon find out, is policed by sexually abusive guards. The story then jumps ahead to the early ’80s, after the boys have grown up and two of them have exacted a bloody revenge on one of their childhood tormentors. The remaining two pals—now a prosecuting attorney (Brad Pitt) and a journalist (Patric)—decide to use their friends’ murder trial as an opportunity to expose the cruelties of their youth.

The ads for the movie Sleepers mention that it’s “from the controversial bestseller,” but none of the ads actually say what the controversy is. In a nutshell, it’s this: Carcaterra claims that his story is true, even though not a shred of corroborating evidence exists to back him up. For the purposes of the filmgoer, however, this matters little. In recent years, more than a few of the best “based on a true story” movies have played fast and loose with the facts (Quiz Show and Dead Man Walking, to name two). What’s more important is if the movie feels true—and Sleepers most certainly does not. Insincerity surrounds it like a stench.

Consider the “big plan” for revenge: Leaving aside the fact that the scheme hinges on one person telling lies and another person telling the truth (when neither party has a legitimate reason for playing along), the real question is, why do the buddies have to wait for a trial to blow the lid off the institution? According to the movie, the reason is that they made a pact never to speak about the unspeakable things—beatings and molestations by guards—that somehow went unnoticed by the administration of the facility (and the one kindly guard that the movie introduces briefly).

Unfortunately, this explanation only floats if we believe the mysterious portrait of Hell’s Kitchen that Sleepers takes great pains to establish—a world described alternately as “violent” and “innocent,” “cruel” and “safe for kids.” Apparently, it’s necessary to follow certain codes of behavior to survive the neighborhood, but Levinson never really succeeds in making them vivid—Hell’s Kitchen is either idealized “good” or idealized “bad,” or even both at once. The movie is filled with facile explanations for sketchy behavior, and the rationales come relentlessly, without irony. Why did two of the boys turn into crooks? Because reform school “just killed something inside them.” Why do the adults get so involved in their revenge scheme? Because “everything in Hell’s Kitchen is a shakedown or a scam.” What does all this mean? It’s hard to say.

The acting in Sleepers is uniformly fine, but the casting has been poorly managed. I’m not sure how bright it was to place distractingly familiar actors like Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman in small roles, leaving more screen time to smaller names like Ron Eldard and Brad Renfro. Because the star wattage is uneven, it’s too easy to see Brad Pitt as Brad Pitt, rather than the emotionally scarred lawyer he’s supposed to be. The stars aren’t integrated into the film’s environment well enough; the ensemble never gels.

For all the film’s weaknesses, Levinson does get in some interesting effects. The film’s sound mix is one of the most striking I’ve heard. Placed under the noisy clank of the city, pop songs are given a ghostly distance, effectively defining Hell’s Kitchen as a culture just a little removed from the rest of America. In Sleepers’ best sequence—the prank gone awry, in which the boys drop a hot dog cart down the steps of a subway—Levinson combines harsh sound with quick, blurry freeze-frames, creating an expressionist portrait of violence as all clatter and smear.

At other times, the constant emphasis on eye-catching cinema tricks is irritating. A black-and-white flashback to a football match feels as though it’s been taken from an Oliver Stone film (where it would have been equally ill-considered). On the whole, though, Sleepers suffers from the same problem that weakened Levinson’s Avalon and Bugsy: The writer-director has trouble determining which material is relevant. Many of the movie’s scenes only seem to mark time—a useless stickball game, a laughably long close-up of DeNiro listening to Patric recount the entire plot of the movie—and the requisite female character, although well-played by Minnie Driver, is completely superfluous. Levinson never fully establishes what the movie is trying to say, other than that people who are brutalized long for revenge.

It’s not entirely Levinson’s fault that Sleepers is so soggy. Because of the inconsistencies in Carcaterra’s story, much time is needed to explain all the little details—so much that there’s almost no time left for the story itself to play out organically. Instead, the movie develops like a cooking show. We have all the ingredients laid out for us, and then we’re shown the finished product. The trouble is, we never actually get to taste the dish.

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