Based on a controversial Lorenzo Carcaterra book ("controversial" in that nobody's sure if it's a true story or merely cynical sensationalism), Sleepers is a powerful, uncomfortable film. (Powerful because it features the talents of Brad Pitt, Jason Patric, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro; uncomfortable because it deals with the hugely emotive subject of child abuse.) It's gripping stuff - absorbing enough to keep you hooked for at least an hour. The problem is, it's two-and-a-half hours long...
As you'd expect of Barry Levinson, this is a top-quality production. Kevin Bacon puts in an electric performance as the malevolent abuser Nokes, Pitt is fine as the narrator, the child actors who play the boys in the early sequences excel during their icky and violent scenes, and De Niro is, as always, outstanding.
The only thing that's hard to swallow is the plot. Try this for size: Crudup and Eldard (now mob hitmen) pop Nokes; fortuitously, Michael (Jason Patric) has grown up to be Assistant DA; Michael aims to rig the murder trial so that his pals get acquitted. Everything hinges on the testimony of the boys' old priest Father Bobby (De Niro). He can give the killers an alibi (despite the fact that several people witnessed Nokes' murder), but, if he does, it means compromising everything he believes in.
With gung-ho performances from the four leads, dramatic one-liners and some excellent cinematography, Sleepers is an absorbing film. It's arse-numbingly long, though, and as it trundles towards a conclusion, the abuse and revenge stories jockey uneasily for position, throwing up a confused and worrying message - - if you want justice, you're better off using a gun than the legal system.
Sleepers is a dark, emotional film that eschews real narrative depth for the star-studded potboiler approach. The film's brutality will upset some, and De Niro and Hoffman don't get much screen time, but it works as entertainment, even if it doesn't entirely convince with its poorly plotted study of "street"morality. Take a comfy cushion to get you through the last 45 minutes.
Sleepers is a compelling film - - but way too long. It doesn't delve deeply enough into the reasons behind the abuse to be truly rewarding, though the grey, dimly lit scenes in the boys' home are undeniably powerful. It's hardly a cosy cinematic experience, but Sleepers deserves to be seen.