Film / Sleepers

"This is a true story about friendship that runs deeper than blood. This is my story and that of the only three friends in my life that truly mattered. Two of them were killers who never made it past the age of 30. The other's a non-practicing attorney living with the pain of his past - too afraid to let it go, never confronting its horror. I'm the only one who can speak for them, and the children we were."
Shakes, opening narration

Sleepers is a 1996 crime thriller directed by Barry Levinson and featuring an All-Star Cast. It was adapted from the 1995 novel of the same name by Lorenzo Carcaterra.

It tells the story of four boys who grow up together under tough circumstances in New York City's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood during The '60s. The group is composed of Michael, John, Tommy and Lorenzo (called "Shakes", short for Shakespeare since he loves to read). Despite the rough conditions of the neighbourhood and their growing ties to mobster King Benny (Vittorio Gassman) the four boys mostly stay out of trouble, partially through the guidance of the local priest, Father Bobby (Robert De Niro). They also have a close bond to Michael's girlfriend, Carol. One day the boys pull a prank that goes horribly wrong, severely injuring an old man and leaving another man deprived of his business, and the four friends are sent to Wilkinson's Home for Boys for a period to a year (Shakes) and eighteen months (the other three). At Wilkinson's the four boys soon become targets for a group of sadistic guards who sexually molest, torture and beat them in increasingly brutal fashion.

The story then jumps forward to 1981, with the foursome now in adulthood. Shakes (Jason Patric) and Michael (Brad Pitt) have rebuilt their lives, working as a newspaper clerk and a lawyer respectively. John (Ron Eldard) and Tommy (Billy Crudup), however, were too heavily traumatized by their experiences and chose a life of crime in order to always be able to feel in control. When the two of them come across Nokes (Kevin Bacon), the leader of the guards who abused them, they kill him and are soon arrested for the murder. Michael takes the case against them and begins, with the help of Carol (Minnie Driver), Shakes, King Benny, and alcoholic defense attorney Danny Snyder (Dustin Hoffman), to run a secret play to get John and Tommy free and expose the atrocities that went on at Wilkinson's.

Carcaterra, the author of the original novel, claims the story is factual but that names, places and dates have been changed. His claims have been heavily challenged.

Sleepers provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Name Change: Danny O'Connor becomes Danny Snyder in the movie.
  • Adult Fear: Having your child sent to a juvinile facility where he s/he is raped, tortured and fundamentally changed, not to mention scarred for life.
  • Aww They Really Care About Each Other: Fat Mancho may sound like he barely tolerates the boys but it's evident that he deeply cares for them, seeing as how he helps them run their highly illegal play in the last third of the film.
  • Based on a True Story: Lorenzo Carcaterra claims the majority of the story is factual, with names, dates and locations changed in order to protect those involved. Many sources have challenged this fact. There are some claims against the story that are actually addressed in the book itself (the book states that the location of the murder trial was not Manhattan, the records of the boys' being at Wilkinson were destroyed after seven years, measures were taken to fix the books so that no one would know the four boys had been absent from school for a year) while others are harder to explain away. Some argue that it doesn't matter if the details of the story actually happened to Carcaterra and his friends because what the book and film wants to shine a light on - sexual, physical and emotional abuse carried out by guards against inmate boys - has very likely happened on several occasions throughout the country, throughout the years, and that the truth of the theme is what's most important. Others feel that the claims to fact actually hurts the cause it's trying to fight for. Carcaterra himself stands by the story to this day.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Lorenzo and Michael (with the help of Fat Mancho, Carol, and King Benny and the testimony of Father Bobby) finish what John and Tommy started and get revenge against the three other guards. They also expose the atrocities that went on at Wilkison home for boys. However John and Tommy resume the life of crime and die a few years after their acquittal. Michael quits law and leaves New York for the English countryside and lives in relative seclusion. Lorenzo, the narrator, is the only one left to speak for them.
  • Black and Gray Morality/ Had to Come to Prison to Be a Crook: Lorenzo and Michael involve Carol and rely on the amoral Fat Mancho and King Benny to carry out their illegal plan to acquit John and Tommy of a crime they are guilty of. This is all an effort to give the guards that abused them their well deserved comeuppance as well as expose the atrocities that went(and presumably continue to go on) during the four boys' stay at the juvenile center.
  • Bookends: The movie opens with shots of the four boys dancing at a school contest with Shakes narrating about their friendship. It closes with showing the full dance scene and Shakes, again, narrating about their friendship.
  • But for Me, It Was Tuesday: Played with. When Tommy and John encounter Nokes years later, he at first doesn't remember who they are, until Tommy tells him "take your time, it'll come to you." Then, Nokes remembers and mocks them for it, resulting in him getting killed.
  • Determinator: Michael goes to law school for the sole purpose of getting back at the guards and exposing Wilkinson's. Then, when opportunity arises, he crafts an intricate plot to fulfill his mission.
  • Freudian Excuse:
    • Implied to be the reason both Father Bobby and King Benny help carry out Michael's plan. Father Bobby did time at Wilkinson himself and King Benny is implied to have had similar experiences in his youth.
    • Implied with Nokes in the movie as far as the beatings go.
  • Karma Houdini: Arguably Ralph Ferguson. When he's last seen in the movie the judge tells him not to go too far because there are people who will want to talk to him. The book reveals that he fled the state and got away. However, it is also made clear that his past actions haunt him every day and that he is a deeply miserable man. Physically he got away much easier than his co-guards but not so emotionally. The book also features a scene where he meets with Shakes years later and begs for forgiveness, that Shakes refuses to grant.
  • Oh, Crap!: The expression on Nokes' face is a perfect example of this when he suddenly realizes that the two men he's talking to are the boys he used to rape, and that both of them remember him, are armed, and are no way in a forgiving mood.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Roger Ebert accused the movie of being homophobic, since the sexual abuse is emphasized as the biggest crime, trumping murder even. However it's more accurate to say that twelve year-olds being raped by grown-ups is the biggest crime, not the aspect of sexuality. In fact only one of the four guards is implied to be homosexual.
  • Shout-Out: Shakes talks about being obsessing with The Count of Monte Cristo and its tale of revenge.
  • Someone to Remember Him By: Carol has a child by John, a son she names after the father, Michael and Tommy. Her pet name for her son is Shakes.
  • Spiritual Predecessor: Can be viewed as such for Spotlight in that it deals with sexual abuse of young boys, carried out by men in a position of power, which is covered up by those in the know. It helps that Billy Crudup appears as one of the adult sleepers in this movie, and as an attorney in Spotlight. A major difference between the two films, however, is that in "Sleepers" the catholic church is a safe haven and a place of comfort and security, and the priest they interact with the most is a protective father figure. However, there is also this statement that brings to mind the 2015 movie:
    Shakes: I told [Father Bobby] about the torture, the beatings and the rapes. I told him about four frightened boys who prayed to Father Bobby's God for help that never came.
  • Spiritual Successor: The way Michael and Shakes communicate during the trial, and the secrecy involved with the whole operation, brings to mind All the President's Men. Roger Ebert even compaired the two of them to Woodward and Bernstein.
  • Title Drop: Shakes explains the title of the movie at one point:
    Shakes: King Benny's sleepers were making their play. "Sleepers" was a street name for anyone who had spent time in a juvenile facility.
  • True Companions: Shakes, Michael, Tommy and John. Carol and Father Bobby can be considered part of the group by extension.
  • Unusual Euphemism: If O'Connor doesn't do his part he will "go down for the dirt nap".
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: For John, Tommy, Michael and Carol in the movie. The book includes many more characters in this, including Father Bobby, Fat Mancho and "Marlboro", the one guard who stood up for the boys at Wilkinson.