What to do with Sleepers? Barry Levinson's 1996 melodrama—based on Lorenzo Carcaterra's novel—is problematic in the extreme. First, though the film vigorously supports Carcaterra's claim at the time that the story was all true, it has since been discredited as largely, if not entirely, fictionalized (James Frey-style). One can simply ignore the "true story" claim and approach Sleepers for what it is, fiction. But then we get into questions of narrative credibility (which the story stretches beyond its limits) and dubious morality. An unrepentant revenge thriller set in modern times, Sleepers celebrates vigilante justice, in part employing a Catholic priest. Despite it all, just try to take your eyes off this movie: skillfully crafted by Levinson, Sleepers is eminently watchable, deeply emotional, and populated with top acting talent.
Carcaterra name-checks The Count of Monte Cristo as his young surrogate's favorite novel, a literary allusion perhaps used as a stealth confession of fictional authorship and definitely used implicitly to justify revenge as heroic. The film's first hour—set between 1966 and 1968—follows four adolescents from Hell's Kitchen through their terribly troubled shared childhood: Lorenzo "Shakes" Carcaterra (Joseph Perrino), Thomas "Tommy" Marcano (Jonathan Tucker), Michael Sullivan (the late Brad Renfro), and John Reilly (Geoffrey Wigdor). Carcaterra's older self (Jason Patric) provides plentiful narration evocative of Goodfellas as the boys get up to stickball, pranks, and petty theft, while neighborhood priest Father Bobby (Robert De Niro) attempts to keep them on the straight and narrow. One day, one of the boys' misadventures takes a tragic turn, and the four friends get sent upstate to the Wilkinson Home for Boys. There, they become subject to systematic torture and sexual abuse at the hands of the guards, who follow the lead of Sean Nokes (Kevin Bacon).
Flash-forward to the fall of 1981. The grown John (Ron Eldard) and Tommy (Billy Crudup)—now career criminals—stumble onto Nokes and immediately slay him, gangland-style ("One down," says John). But the story has just begun, as Michael (Brad Pitt)—now an assistant District Attorney—has angled for the case with the intention of throwing it and getting his friends off the hook for murder. Mike enlists Shakes, now an investigative journalist, to help execute the plan, primarily by convincing Father Bobby to lie on the stand in order to provide John and Tommy with an airtight alibi. Shakes, in turn, enlists old friend—and John's lover—Carol (Minnie Driver) for moral support. Another important piece of the puzzle is substance-abusing defense lawyer Danny Snyder (Dustin Hoffman), the reverse patsy employed as the mouthpiece for Michael's stealth defense of his friends.
Because of the emotional rigors endured by the central characters, Sleepers plumbs often unexplored areas of antiheroism, resulting in complicated audience identification. The secret held by the four men since childhood has damaged their ability to interrelate normally with each other and to form healthy relationships with others, and their PTSD has stoked the rage that explains their desire for—and tolerance of—homicidal revenge. As screenwriter and filmmaker, Levinson ably navigates this emotional terrain, to the degree that even Father Bobby's moral struggle seems plausible as he tries to decide the greater good in the situation the characters now face (Levinson also rounds up skilled behind-the-camera support from cinematographer Michael Ballhaus—who shot Goodfellas—and composer John Williams). That Sleepers has the power to make audiences at all conflicted speaks to its dramatic skillfulness: though it's tonier than, say, Death Wish, it's not hard to see multiple reasons the Catholic Church cried foul on its release.
Supplanting a much-maligned DVD release, the Blu-ray of Sleepers does the film justice in the A/V department. The surprisingly vibrant hi-def transfer—from a very clean source—achieves a good sense of depth through well-calibrated contrast and sharpness of detail; color and black level deepen as well, and light film grain contributes to a natural appearance. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix can be considered definitive in rendering the humble original audio (the mix is most effective in rounding out the music).
The sole extra provided here is the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:16, HD).
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