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Film / Sleepers

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From left to right: Father Bobby, Shakes, Michael, and Snyder/O'Connor.

"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 with 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 of 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 beat, torture, and sexually molest them in an 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/O'Connor (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:

  • Abuse Discretion Shot: Several households in the film are described as being abusive, with fathers abusing their wives and their children, with abuse only being described by the narrator and some characters.
  • Abusive Parents: Downplayed, as its John's mother's boyfriend. The aforementioned boyfriend hit the young John so hard, he punctured the latter's lung and he nearly died.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Danny O'Connor becomes Danny Snyder in the movie.
  • An Aesop:
    • Beatings and abuse can turn people who could have otherwise straightened out into hardened criminals. The case is specially made with John, who was the most kind-hearted of the group and who wanted to be a priest, but who ended up the coldest one of them all.
    • Just punishing kids with behavioral problems with no effort to reach or help them will likely just make them worse. Shakes notes that most of the kids in the facility had been in there before and had been basically written off already.
    • Shakes learns from Father Bobby that when you do something bad, it's important to face up to it and accept the consequences. Otherwise, you spend your life running away.
  • Affably Evil: Even after John and Tommy became bandits, they have their affable moments. Despite clearly disagreeing with two Republican bar patrons, they buy them a drink on the condition that they drop all talk of politics. They also apologize to the bar staff after murdering Nokes and pay for their meal before leaving.
  • Alternate Character Interpretation: In-universe. Ralph Ferguson appears as a model citizen who helps people by virtue of being a social worker who has been called merely as a character witnessnote . To the four sleepers (John in particular), however, he is a sadistic monster and a rapist. As it turns out, he's also a huge coward who runs away rather than face justice for his actions. Exploited by lawyers Michael and Snyder/O'Connor during the trial. Ferguson is brought in as a character witness for Sean Nokes. Ferguson genuinely believes the description he makes of Nokes as the best friend anyone can have — someone who was always there for you and who you could talk to about everything. As Snyder/O'Connor questions him and the truth begins to come out, an entirely different picture is drawn. The end of the interrogation more or less can be seen as this trope put into words.
    Snyder/O'Connor: Mr. Ferguson, do you still think that Sean Nokes was a good man?
    Ferguson: *in tears* He was my friend.
    Snyder/O'Connor: A friend who raped and abused boys he was paid to look after.
  • Anti-Hero: Both Michael and Shakes do illegal actions to get both John and Tommy off on the murder they are responsible for. However, the victim was one of the four men who repeatedly tortured, beat, and raped them.
  • Asshole Victim: Nokes completely deserved to be murdered in such a cold-blooded manner.
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love 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. The book mentions that Shakes is one of the few people that Fat Mancho has absolute trust in.
  • Backfire on the Witness Stand: Invoked by Michael. In regard to the trial scheme, a great deal of Michael's plan relied on tarnishing Nokes' reputation without giving away John and Tommy's admittedly righteous motive to murder him. As Michael is acting as the prosecutor, he needs a witness to "backfire" on him in the defendant's favor. He manages to convince the judge to allow him to call a character witness to ostensibly frame the victim in a positive light and, consequently, make the defendants look like criminals who randomly kill people because they felt like it (which they are, truth be told, but not in this case). Snyder/O'Connor is ordered to ask compromising questions about Nokes's and, by extension, Ferguson's activities as guards at Wilkinson's. When he's done with Ferguson, now the jury and the judge are aware of how much of an Asshole Victim Nokes is and why someone, who might be unrelated to the defendants, would want to dispose of him.
  • Badass Preacher: As Shakes puts it, Father Bobby is just as comfortable sitting on a barstool as standing at an altar. He also states that Father Bobby lived a life of petty crime before his calling, which implies the priest knows his way among the scoundrels and he's just as tough as everybody else in the neighborhood. He also has no issue threatening John's abusive stepfather after he puts the kid in the hospital due to a punctured lung. Even King Benny thinks that Father Bobby would have made a good hitman.
    Stepfather: The little punk. He got out of line, so I put him back on line. No big deal.
    Father Bobby: You put him in hospital.
    Stepfather: He's alive, ain't he? Look, if he's smart, he learned himself a lesson.
    Father Bobby: What are you, about 220, 230 [pounds]? You're a big guy. How much do you think Jonny Reilly weighs? 80, 85? That's not even a featherweight. If this were a fight, you'd be way out of your division.
    Stepfather: Look, it was a slap. It was nothing.
    Father Bobby: Next time, you'll be meeting me. And I may not be in your division, but I do weigh more than 85 pounds. And you won't need a doctor when I'm done. You'll need a priest to pray over your body. [after a brief pause and smiling] See you in church.
  • Based on a Great Big Lie / 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, and 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 want 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 such claims actually hurt the cause the story is trying to fight for. Carcaterra himself stands by the story to this day.
  • Batman Gambit: The Count of Montecristo-inspired revenge (i.e., waiting and preparing before making a move) of the Sleepers against their abusers heavily relies on people behaving in expected ways. The trial scheme hinges upon King Benny's influence on the community of Hell's Kitchen and the loyalty within to fool the authorities and hide/obtain key information until the time has come. And also, to obtain a semi-competent lawyer who will follow the script without questioning. The revenge against Addison depends on Rizzo's older brother, a drug lord, avenging his death after finding out the truth.
  • Best Served Cold: The The Count of Monte Cristo is invoked at least thrice through the film and each time the characters allude to the eponymous character's path of well-prepared, long-awaited revenge that is all the more satisfactory because of it. In the case of the sleepers, they sustained horrific psychological, physical, and sexual abuse from four reformatory guards with no means of retaliating nor defending themselves. Thirteen years later, two of the sleepers fortuitously find the leader of the guards (Nokes) with the roles inverted. Nokes is unarmed and defenseless against two very armed, merciless, hardened mafia killers. Then it's revealed a third sleeper has been compiling compromising files about their tormentors and has become a lawyer with the express purpose of exposing the abuse and putting the former guards into jail. He takes advantage of the opportunity his two friends provided to avenge the four sleepers. The fourth sleeper happily agrees to play along and collaborate with the scheme. However, it has to be noted that despite the relief and gratification the revenge provided them, it didn't heal their trauma nor make them better men.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Father Bobby is a very kind man who looks out for the boys as a mentor and father figure. However, he also makes clear that he isn't to be messed with, openly telling John's stepfather that if he touches John again, he'll have to answer to Father Bobby who isn't going to be pushed around. He also used to be involved in petty crime and served in a juvenile detention center in his youth.
  • Big Brother Instinct: Addison is killed by Rizzo's older brother after said brother learned that Addison was one of the people who murdered him and covered it up.
  • 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. And some of its more 'rotten' aspects (a mob boss ruling the community and the presence of Dirty Cops) helped them carry out their revenge as adults.
    Shakes: Hell's Kitchen was a place of innocence ruled by corruption.
  • A Birthday, Not a Break: It was Shakes's 14th birthday when he and his friends were first raped by the four guards.
  • 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 their 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: 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 who 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 by 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.
    Michael [to Shakes]: Do you still sleep with the light on?
  • Bullying a Dragon: The football game the inmates won over the guards with the help of Rizzo (a black boy). The guards then beat Rizzo to death and severely beat the boys and threw them into solitary confinement while denying them immediate healthcare for their injuries.
  • 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. Shakes's narration states that Michael is still afraid of the past and unable to let it go.
  • Cacophony Cover Up: When Rizzo's older brother, Little Caesar, orders the execution of one of his little brother's torturers and murderers under the pretense of the former guard owing him 8000 dollars, the deed is done near an airport so the overwhelming noise of a landing airliner will drown out the sound of the many shots they fire.
  • Clear Their Name: Inverted. Tommy and John did commit the crime (Nokes's murder) and their friends (Michael, Shakes, and King Benny) set out to help them literally get away with murder. However, the murdered man tortured and molested them when they were preteens, so he more than deserved to be killed and is a very controversial topic whether such retaliations (victims against their abusers) are true, and thus punishable, crimes.
  • Character Development: As a result of their plights in the juvenile center, the four sleepers are very different in adulthood than they were in their childhood. All of them are heavily traumatized but express it in different ways. John and Tom took violent crimes (paid or for fun) and drugs as outlets. Michael became obsessed with evening out the field against their abusers to the point of compiling compromising information about them for years and going to Law School only for this purpose. Shakes seems to be the most successful at reintegrating into society but is no longer outgoing and playful and no longer wants to be a priest. Character development, however, stops here and there. Despite their victory, Shakes narrates they were unchanged, returning to the same personal problems they had before the trial in the following weeks.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Rizzo is initially just another prisoner who helps the boys win a football game, then is murdered by the guards. Significantly later in the movie, it turns out that his older brother is a gangster, and what happened to Rizzo causes him to help Michael and the others get revenge.
  • The Chessmaster: Michael was the one to concoct the entire plan to get Tommy and John freed and get revenge on the four guards who brutalized them.
  • Childhood Friend Romance: Carol and John were friends in their youth but became a couple as adults.
  • Childhood Friends: The four boys stay friends as adults, even if they go down different paths.
  • 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 gives him a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo in thanks for being one of the few students who really listens in his class as evidenced by his outstanding essay on the aforementioned book.
  • Crusading Lawyer: Zigzagged. The Anti-Hero Michael becomes a lawyer as an adult and uses many illegal means (with Shakes's help) to free Tommy and John and condemn the guard who abused them.
  • Dark and Troubled Past:
    • The boys when they become adults. They each are troubled in their own ways because of the severe abuse they suffered as children.
    • Implied with Father Bobby. He was sent to Wilkinson's in his youth and possibly experienced troubles there.
    • King Benny had his teeth taken from him and became involved in gang life, and it's implied he may have been sexually abused as a child.
    • Shake's father was sent to prison for murdering his first wife.
  • Dark Secret: The boys come to an agreement to keep the abuse they suffered at Wilkinson's a secret only to them.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Zigzagged. Carol names her son after the four boys, but two end up dead (including the father) and two are still alive.
  • Determinator: Michael goes to law school for the sole purpose of getting back at the guards and exposing Wilkinson's atrocities. Then, when the opportunity arises, he crafts an intricate plot to fulfill his mission.
  • Dirty Coward: Nokes only targets scared young kids who are trapped under his supervision and his sadism and arrogance vanish when John and Tommy make clear that not only are they not afraid of him as adults but intend to kill him right then and there, only making a pitiful attempt as a justification for his actions, that he was trying to make them harder.
  • Disproportionate Retribution:
    • Everything that happened to the boys while at Wilkinson's, not to mention Rizzo. To clarify, the four sleepers ended up in jail because of a prank gone wrong — they were careless, but they definitely weren't violent and didn't want to injure anyone. And Rizzo, whose only crime was to be black and win a football game against the guards.
    • It's mentioned that John once shot a man for cutting in front of him in a line.
  • The Dog Bites Back: The premise of the plot revolves around this trope. The four sleepers endured so much trauma and abuse that, when presented with the opportunity to bite back, they eagerly jump at the chance and damn the consequences. One of them was preparing his revenge long before that.
  • Domestic Abuse: Shakes's father is shown on more than one occasion slapping his wife (Shakes's mother) or whipping her with his belt for just pissing him off or for very petty reasons. Surprisingly he doesn’t beat Shakes. Or, at least, he's not shown doing so and Shakes never mentions or hints at abuse from him. He's still very emotionally neglectful towards his son — after Shakes told Father Bobby and Carol about his plights in the juvenile center, he tried opening up about it with his father, who brusquely interrupted him twice and merely asked him if he was doing good (presumably, in his life). It's also implied that he suffered similar abuse from guards like Nokes as a young man too but is still unable to talk about it.
    Shakes's father: [slaming the door] Shut the fuck up! I buried one fucking wife, I could bury another one.note 
  • Drugs Are Bad: Deconstructed. Both John and Tommy are drug-addicted killers as adults but it's clear they are using drugs to deal with the abuse and trauma they suffered as children.
  • Dude Magnet: Carol gained the attraction of Michael, Shakes, and John at various points.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Nokes and Ferguson were revealed to be genuine friends, although Ferguson choked on the question of whether he would allow Nokes to be alone with his young son.
  • Filching Food for Fun: The four sleepers were taking a sunbath on the roof of a building when one of them decided he was bored and that, anyway, it was time for lunch. The foursome then sets to steal some hotdogs from a very strict immigrant vendor. Shakes is the designated diversion as he has to order a hotdog and fly without paying to get the vendor to run after him. In the meanwhile, the other three boys serve themselves a small buffet. Seeing Shakes is taking too much time, Michael decides to prank the vendor by holding his cart at the top of the subway entrance's stairs until he arrives so as to prevent him from chasing after them. Shakes joins them and they enact the plan, but the cart proves too heavy for the four boys and it crashes against an elderly man, nearly killing him.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Nokes is a reprehensible bastard who uses a mask of charm and affability to further humiliate the boys at Wilkinson's.
  • Foil: One of the more subtle themes of the work is that tragedy greatly impacts a person but it doesn't determine the quality of that person. The four boys are foils to each other in this sense.
    • Two of them, Shakes and John pondered about entering priesthood, while the other two, Tommy and Michael, didn't pay that much attention to religion. After their time at Wilkinson's, John and Tommy chose a life of crime and drug abuse while Shakes and Michael managed to rehabilitate into society.
    • Moreover, John used to be the kindest of the four (he lets get himself distracted by his rival's wheelchaired sister so she could feel a little less powerless) and Michael seems to have been the most mischievous and careless (he came up with the idea to steal from and prank the hotdogs vendor that got them all in jail). In adulthood, John ended up the coldest and most sociopathic while Michael held onto the idea of revenge the most obsessively.
    • For these two, there's also their romantic involvement with Carol. Michael and she were a couple back in their preteen years and maybe adolescence, but his trauma prevented their relationship from progressing both sexually and emotionally. At an unspecified moment in the time skip, Carol and John started dating despite all of his criminal deeds, with Carol revealing to Shakes that John has something special in him. It seems that romance-wise, their roles are inverted in regards to who is the best-adjusted one.
    • Father Bobby and King Benny are both mentor figures for the four sleepers and, more relevantly, are Mirror Characters to each other. Both share a backstory of "petty crime" as Shakes' narration puts it. Yet one decided to be a man of the cloth and provide guidance and comfort the Hell's Kitchen's kids (Father Bobby) while the other escalated his crimes and ambitiously climbed to his position as Hell's Kitchen's crime lord (King Benny). Interestingly enough, both of them are morally gray since King Benny's management of the neighborhood ensured that it was a safety net for children, and Father Bobby never shied from violent threats against those who hurt the kids and even perjured himself to help those kids (now adults).
  • 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.
    • In the movie, Nokes says that, in his house, there were rules and there were discipline thanks to his father. While abusing the boys, he often says they need rules and discipline.
    • John and Tommy. Given what they went through, it's not surprising at all that they became seriously troubled adults who have no issue committing murder for money.
  • Free-Range Children: Either due to their parents being too preoccupied with making meets end (fighting with each other as a result) or their parents having the security the neighborhood takes care of its own people (especially the children), the four sleepers have ample freedom to wander around. They even do illegal, dangerous jobs for King Benny without consequences.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: John and Tommy go from regular and friendly boys to famous, cold-blooded killers as adults.
  • Futureshadowing: A badly beaten Shakes is seen thrown into solitary confinement before the reason is shown.
  • Glory Days: The film ends with a flashback to their childhood days, and Shakes's final words relay how bright the future seemed for them back then.
  • Good Shepherd: Father Bobby is this trope incarnate. He goes out of his way to look after Hell's Kitchen's children, providing them with understanding words and solid advice while never invalidating their feelings. His caring even goes to the point of lying in court for the sleepers after discovering the horrific abuse they endured.
  • Groin Attack: Nokes is shot in the crotch before being riddled with bullets by John and Tommy.
  • The Heart: Carol, by virtue of not being a sleepernote . She's been a friend since childhood to all of them and the girlfriend of at least two of them — Michael when they were kids and John as adults. Her undying loyalty to the boys may have helped make their rough post-Wilkinson's lives that little bit happier if nothing else.
  • Hypocrite: Nokes has the temerity to tell John and Tommy that they are "going to hell". Yes, the violently abusive, child molester actually thinks he has the right to lecture anyone.
  • Inelegant Blubbering: Ralph Ferguson, on the stand when confronted by the defenders' lawyer about his friend Sean Nokes's "experiences" (read torture and sexual abuse) with underaged boys.
  • Innocence Lost: The torture, beatings, and rapes that were inflicted on the boys greatly traumatizes them.
  • Internal Affairs: Internal Affairs cop Davenport is an ally of the heroes and helps them bust their former rapist, Styler, a Dirty Cop protecting drug dealers for money and murdering them when they won't play ball. Davenport is described as eager to make busts to further his career, but he's professional, friendly, and doesn't act on the claims against Styler until he has reliable evidence.
  • Juvenile Hell: The Wilkinson's Home for Boys is a detention center filled with hardened young men, many of whom have been there multiple times before and show no interest in changing. That's not even getting into the physical and sexual abuse inflicted by the guards on inmates, resulting in one being outright killed.
  • 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 corruption and murder, and Ferguson becomes The Atonernote , 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 and torture. Rather fittingly, the first bullet hits him in the crotch.
    • Addison is murdered by the older brother of the black boy he helped beat to death.
  • Kidanova: Michael was a Pretty Boy Chick Magnet who became a boyfriend to numerous girls, including Carol.
  • Leave the Camera Running: The extended shot of Father Bobby's face (and Carol's during a shorter span) as Shakes tells him of the abuse.
  • Long-Haired Pretty Boy: Tommy. This effect was probably unintentional as, though he looks like he's led a hard life of crime, severe trauma, and substance abuse, it doesn't change the fact that he's played by Billy Crudup in all his youthful glory.
  • 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 giving any sign of the trials that would await them.
  • Multiple Gunshot Death: To two of the abusive guards, Nokes (by John and Tommy) and Addison (by Rizzo's older brother).
  • Must Make Amends. Implied. Michael was the one to come up with the idea to prank the hotdog vendor by holding his cart at the top of some stairs. The situation went haywire and an elderly man was hit by the heavy cart when it slipped from the boys' hands. As a result, the foursome was sent to Wilkinson's Home for Boys and suffered sickening abuse at the hands of the guards. Michael is also the most obsessed with revenge (marked by the fact he has apparently read The Count of Monte Cristo several times since) and had it meticulously planned before Nokes' murder. It's possible that, along with all of his hatred, he also felt guilty of condemning himself and his friends to such a terrible fate in the first place.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: The moment at the top of the stairs after the cart has crashed.
  • Narrator: Shakes narrates the entire movie.
  • Nice Guy: Father Bobby is kind, compassionate, and honorable, representing the best of the church.
  • Not Proven: Downplayed. What both lawyers successfully pull off in the trial. By carefully orchestrating the questions Snyder/O'Connor (the defendants' official lawyer) should ask the two witnesses, Michael manages to highlight that they didn't really see John and Tommy shooting at Nokes. One of them had his back turned and the other one only saw them pass by and heard the shots, but she was distracted when the first bullet was fired, and when the rest bullets followed, she, along with the other witness, sheltered themselves under their table and closed their eyes, praying to be spared. There's also the fact the female witness could be considered drunk (and thus, her testimony dubious) by the time the crime happened. Granted, this stunt was not enough to acquit John and Tommy but was the necessary setup to rend Father Bobby's perjured testimony all the more believable.
  • Not So Above It All: The young Shakes keeps to himself a nun's clacker (what they use to indicate to their students when to stand and when to sit) he found in the hallway. While in Mass, he 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 trope when he suddenly realizes that the two-armed men he's talking to are the boys he used to rape and torture and that both of them remember him and are in no way in a forgiving mood.
  • The One That Got Away: Carol to Michael, as they later couldn't explain to her the trauma he endured, and they broke up. The ending shows he still has feelings for her.
  • One-Word Title: Sleepers. On a related note, the term sleeper is old slang for a person who was sent to a juvenile reformatory, just like the four main characters, Father Bobby (who is the boys' mentor), and Shakes' father. It has a double meaning in that in espionage, a "sleeper agent" is one who remains out of sight (figuratively asleep) until an opportunity presents itself.
  • Papa Wolf: Father Bob to the four boys. He encourages them to keep on the straight path and threatens to harm the boyfriend of John's mother after said boyfriend hit John. He ultimately decided to lie in court in order to get justice for both John and Tommy.
  • Parental Substitute: Father Bobby acts as a positive, paternal figure to the four boys, encouraging them to think of a life beyond Hell's Kitchen.
  • Pedophile Priest: Father Bobby is an inversion of this trope. He and the church serve as a heaven for the kids of Hell's Kitchen. Initially in the sense as a reprieve and a career alternative to crime, but later on, as a place to get (illegal) help and solace from sexual abuse.
  • A Place Holds Memories: Shakes is chatting with Fat Mancho about the ongoing plot to get John and Tommy acquitted for the murder of Nokes and bring attention to the child molestation going on at Wilkinson — only to find himself distracted by the sight of a broken-down fire hydrant. He then flashes back to his childhood when he, John, Tommy, and Michael would play around the same hydrant, back before the four of them were sent to Wilkinson and put on the downward spiral that left them in their current predicament.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: If you didn’t think Nokes being a rapist and abusive scumbag was bad enough, then let's be known 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. Moreover, during the coin toss before the Football game, he calls Rizzo “sambo”.
    • Also, considering the rest of the guards helped Nokes beat Rizzo to death, this trope could also apply to them as well note .
  • Poor Communication Kills: Michael's 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. Or not since there's a reason social workers are not allowed to work on the cases of people close to them — the emotional bond understandably makes them prone to bias.
  • Post-Rape Taunt: When Nokes remembers John and Tommy, he cruelly states he was trying to "toughen" them up.
  • The Power of Hate: While Tommy and John encountered their former molester only by sheer dumb luck and shot him to death in a fit of rage, Michael has been planning his revenge for possibly more than a decade. From going to Law School to slowly gathering incriminating information about their abusers to pit them against the Public Justice system or a drug lord. Shakes is a downplayed case since he didn't obsess about revenge (noted by the fact he hasn't read The Count of Monte Cristo in years) but only needed a little convincing to join Michael's schemes in a patient and devoted fashion.
  • Prison Rape: One of the most disturbing cases in movie history since it was done against four pubescent boys by full-grown men.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: The boys win the tag football game, but a vengeful Nokes and his guards beat up the boys and lock them up. And the guards also murder Rizzo. Shakes laments how it was foolish of them to think winning a game would make everything okay.
  • Rape Discretion Shot: The rapes of the boys are never seen, the audience only hears their screams of pain while it is horrifically described by Shakes.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: The reason why the Johnny and Tommy are Sympathetic Murderers is that their victim used to rape them when they were children. Not only are their loved ones extremely sympathetic toward them (and their friends Michael and Shakes who were also molested) when they are told about the abuse, but one of them goes as far as to perjure himself to help them. Additionally, their plot of revenge hinges on this trope. By uncovering the rapist's true nature in court and exploiting that nobody really saw Johnny and Tommy kill Nokes, they get the judge horrified and disgusted enough to acquit them.
  • See You in Hell:
    Nokes: You two motherfuckers are going to burn in Hell. You're going to burn in Hell...
    John: Yeah, after you. [shoots him]
  • Shameful Strip: Ordering the boys to do this was the first look at Nokes's perverted behavior.
  • Shout-Out: Shakes talks about obsessing with The Count of Monte Cristo and its tale of jailbreaking and cold-served revenge.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: Deconstructed. The boys only wanted a hot dog on a hot summer day and decided to steal some. However, their actions inadvertently led to a man being hospitalized. Shakes narrates and shamefully laments how the boys also caused trouble to the vendor: A Greek immigrant trying to make money to bring his wife and child to the country.
  • Smurfette Principle: Carol is the only female member of her friendship with the boys, as well as the only female character with serious importance to the plot.
  • Someone to Remember Him By: Carol has a child with John, a son she names after the father, Michael, and Tommy. Her pet name for her son is Shakes.
  • 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 no longer there.
  • Sympathetic Murderer: Given what Tommy and John went through, who could blame them for giving Nokes his well-deserved karma?
  • 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.
  • Token Good Teammate: The unnamed black guard at Wilkinson's. Unlike the others, he doesn't abuse his power against the boys and silently admonishes Nokes for doing so.
  • Tranquil Fury: John and Tommy in the scene where they murder Nokes.
  • True Companions: Shakes, Michael, Tommy, and John. Shakes even opens the narration by saying "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". Carol and Father Bobby can also be considered part of the group since they loyally remained by the boys' side despite everything.
  • Unusual Euphemism: If the alcoholic lawyer Snyder/O'Connor doesn't do his part in the trial, he will "go down for the dirty nap". Snyder/O'Connor himself even lampshades he's never heard that expression.
  • Used to Be a Sweet Kid: While mischievous and nonchalant about getting money by doing jobs for mob leader King Benny, the four sleepers were good, cheerful boys. Shakes and John, in particular, were the kindest of them all and wanted to be priests in a neighborhood where the only career option was being a criminal. After their time in the youth detention center, John and Tommy turned into violent, addicted-to-drugs killers, while Michael and Shakes lost their faith in the Legal System and police officers. Hence, the foursome's ability to take revenge via illegal means, namely outright murder and corruption.
  • Unwitting Pawn: Danny Snyder/O'Connor, the official lawyer of Tommy and John, didn't know at first what was going on. From his point of view, King Benny threatens him one day to take on the defense of two of his hitmen in a trial that would usually be a can't-miss case for the prosecutor. He was handed a script with questions for him to ask in court and ordered to play along and put on the effort to be at least a tad competent. As the trial progressed, it's possible he figured out the defending position had help from the inside, but it's never shown nor implied anyone revealed the truth to him.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Nokes makes a pitiful effort at framing himself as this, claiming he was only trying to make the boys tougher. John and Tommy are unsurprisingly not convinced.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: For John, Tommy, Michael, and Carol in the movie. The book includes many more characters, including Father Bobby, Fat Mancho, and Marlboro, the one guard who stood up for the boys at Wilkinson.
  • Would Hurt a Child: On-screen, the sleepers' molesters. Psychological, physical, and sexual abuse are hinted to be pervasive at the youth detention center, so the trope may apply to several other guards as well.
  • Wrong Side of the Tracks: Hell's Kitchen is of the Modern Ghetto flavor.
    Shakes: [narrating] Hell's Kitchen was populated by an uneasy blend of Irish, Italian, Puerto Rican, and Eastern European laborers. Hard men living hard lives. [a married couple aggressively yelling in the background] Few women worked and all had trouble with the men they married.