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Film / Sleepers

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"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 juvenile facility where he s/he is raped, tortured and fundamentally changed, not to mention scarred for life.
  • Asshole Victim: Nokes completely deserved to be murdered in such a cold-blooded manner.
  • 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.
  • Badass Preacher: Father Bobby is just as comfortable sitting on a bar-stool as standing at an altar as Shakes put it. He also has no issue threatening John's abusive stepfather after he puts him in the hospital.
  • 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.
  • Batman Gambit: The trial scheme big-time, relying heavily on King Benny's influence on the community and the loyalty within.
  • The Big Rotten Apple: Played with. Hell's Kitchen looks the part and is a hotbed of crime, domestic violence and relative poverty but the boys had a happy, even pretty safe childhood there. Some of its more 'rotten' aspects (a mob boss ruling the community and the presence of dirty cops) also helped them carry out their revenge as adults.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Lorenzo and Michael (with the help of Fat Mancho, Carol, 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 the Wilkinson 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.
  • Book-Ends: 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.
  • Broken Bird: The boys all become this in various ways through the events at Wilkinson's.
  • Bullying a Dragon: The football game the inmates won over the guards with the help of Rizzo. The guards then beat Rizzo to death and beat the boys and threw them into solitary confinement.
  • But for Me, It Was Tuesday: When Tommy and John encounter Nokes years later, he doesn't remember who they are, even when Tommy tells him "take your time, it'll come to you." After they identify themselves, Nokes remembers and mocks them for it, resulting in him getting killed.
  • But Now I Must Go: Michael departs for a quiet, solitary life in the English countryside after the events of the film.
  • Character Development: Obvious from children to adults but stops with their adult selves. Despite their victory, Shakes narrates they were unchanged, returning to the same personal problems they had before the trial in the following weeks.
  • The Chick: Carol. She's a friend since childhood to all of them and the girlfriend of at least two on different occasions. Her undying loyalty to the boys may have helped make their rough post-Wilkinson's lives that little bit happier if nothing else.
  • Confessional: Young Shakes and John liked to sneak into confession booths impersonating priests. It's played for laughs here because the woman who gives the confession says 'thanks for listening boys' at the end of it.
  • Cool Teacher: Shakes' English teacher at Wilkinson's who gives him a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo in thanks for being one of the few students who listens in his class.
  • 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.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Everything that happened to the boys while at Wilkinson's, not to mention Rizzo.
    • It's mentioned that John once shot a man for cutting in front of him in a line.
  • Domestic Abuse: Shakes’s father is shown on more than one occasion slapping his wife/Shakes’s mother or a whipping her with a belt for just pissing him off or for very petty reasons.
    • Surprisingly he doesn’t beat Shakes or is shown beating Shakes.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Nokes can be a charming person but is a reprehensible bastard.
  • 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.
  • Free-Range Children
  • Futureshadowing: A badly-beaten Shakes is seen thrown into solitary confinement before the reason is shown.
  • Good Shepherd: Father Bobby is this trope incarnate.
  • Inelegant Blubbering: Ralph Ferguson on the stand.
  • Karma Houdini Warranty: Sean Nokes, Adam Styler, Henry Addison and Ralph Ferguson get away with sexually abusing the kids for years, until the events of the movie, where Nokes is murdered and the trial leads to the abuse being exposed. As a result, Addison gets killed in a Vigilante Execution, Styler is imprisoned for child molestation and Ferguson becomes The Atoner, loses his wife and kids and ends his days a broken shell of his former self.
  • Karmic Death: Nokes is murdered by two boys he used to sexually abuse. Rather fittingly, the first bullet hits him in the crotch.
  • Kick the Son of a Bitch: John and Tommy's execution of Nokes. Everything about it, from there taunting of him to their prolonging it, would establish them as evil were Nokes not so thoroughly deserving of such a demise.
  • Leave the Camera Running: The extended shot of Father Bobby's face as Shakes tells him of the abuse.
  • Long-Haired Pretty Boy: Tommy. This effect was probably unintentional as he looks like he's led a hard life of crime and substance abuse but that doesn't change the fact that he's still played by Billy Crudup.
  • Mood Whiplash: Up until the cart incident, the film is a fairly lighthearted look at their imperfect but adventurous young lives in Hell's Kitchen with only Shakes' knowing narration any sign of the trials that would await them.
  • Multiple Gunshot Death
  • My God, What Have We Done: The moment at the top of the stairs after the cart has crashed.
  • Nice Guy: Father Bobby is kind, compassionate and honorable, representing the best of the church.
  • Not So Above It All: The young Shakes steals a nun's clacker (what they use to indicate to their students when to stand and when to sit), and in church, uses it to wreak havoc. Father Bobby immediately figures out what's going on, gets in the pew behind Shakes, and quietly but firmly asks Shakes to give him the clacker, which he does. Father Bobby then uses the clacker, to Shakes' astonishment.
    Father Bobby: Nuns are such easy targets.
  • 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.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: If you didn’t think Nokes being a rapist and abusive scumbag was bad enough?? Its not as he’s also very racist. He calls a fellow guard who is black and appears to be in his mid-to late 40s a “boy” just for telling him that it’s time for them to switch shifts and for ruining his blatant abuse of power towards the boys in the lunchroom and during the coin toss before the Football game, he calls Rizzo “sambo”
    • Also considering that the rest of the guards helped Nokes beat Rizzo to death, this trope could also apply to them as well.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Michael and Carol's relationship ended because he wouldn't let Carol close beyond a certain point. During the trial when Carol found out about the abuse, she says maybe things could've been different if he told her. Given she's a social worker and almost certainly would've seen similar behavior from others who'd been abused in her job, it's perhaps a slight case of Idiot Ball that she didn't appear to consider even the possibility.
  • Prison Rape: One of the most disturbing cases in movie history.
  • 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-old's 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.
    • Indeed, in one sexual abuse scene, it is implied that the guards would be doing the same thing to their victim's mother if she was available.
  • Shameful Strip: The first look at Nokes' perverted behavior.
  • 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 Presidents Men. Roger Ebert even compaired the two of them to Woodward and Bernstein.
  • Stealth Hi/Bye: Carol and Michael's behind-the-back conversation on the train ends with Carol talking only to turn around and see he's exited.
  • Sympathetic Murderer
  • This Is Gonna Suck: Shakes before his sentencing cries to Father Bobby out of fear to face his punishment.
  • 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.
  • Tranquil Fury: John and Tommy in the murder scene.
  • 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 (Snyder in the film) doesn't do his part he will "go down for the dirt nap".
  • Used to Be a Sweet Kid: All four of the boys but this is especially true for John and Tommy who go from being innocent and basically good kids to hardened killers.
  • "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.
  • Zen Survivor: Shakes is (just ahead of Michael) the most well-adjusted of the boys into adulthood and in his own words is the only one left able to tell their story.

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