Isn't "Sleepers" the nonfiction book that critics tried to shoot down as a sham after author Lorenzo Carcaterra sold his 1995 memoir to Hollywood for a cool $2 million? You got that right. Now the powerfully unsettling movie version is under fire. Despite the hot cast — young contenders Brad Pitt and Jason Patric mixing it up with heavyweights Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman — the heartfelt direction of Barry Levinson (Rain Man) and Carcaterra's true-crime story, Sleepers (the street name for boys who do time in a juvenile facility) still invites suspicion.
Carcaterra isn't fazed. He admits that he changed names, dates and some locations to protect the identities of those involved. Otherwise, Sleepers is his life as one of four Catholic schoolboys who were raised in New York's rough Hell's Kitchen area in the 1960s, remanded to reform school after a prank with a hot-dog cart nearly killed an old man, raped and brutalized by school guards, and reunited as adults in a revenge plot that ends in murder and a cover-up.
Hard to swallow? Levinson says that Carcaterra's vivid storytelling supersedes questions of exact authenticity, even an implausible trial scene. When Assistant District Attorney Michael Sullivan (Pitt) prosecutes John Reilly (Ron Eldard) and Tommy Marcano (Billy Crudup) for shooting security guard Sean Nokes (Kevin Bacon), the killers feel betrayed. Michael was their friend in Hell's Kitchen. So was Lorenzo Carcaterra (Patric), the aspiring reporter. All endured the same abuse from Nokes in reform school. That's where bookworm Lorenzo, known as Shakes (for Shakespeare), gave his pals a taste for the sweet revenge he read about in The Count of Monte Cristo. "I'm not taking the case to win," says Michael, to Shakes' relief. "I'm taking it to lose."
With the help of gangster King Benny (Vittorio Gassman) and childhood pal Carol (an underused Minnie Driver), the sleepers have their vengeance. They bring in defense lawyer Danny Snyder (Dustin Hoffman in sly comic form), a drunk who can be trusted to keep quiet about the fix. The chief defense witness is Father Bobby (Robert De Niro), the neighborhood priest who perjures himself by swearing he was with John and Tommy on the night of the murder.
Since objections from the Catholic Church and the Manhattan district attorney's office (no murder trial resembling this one is on the books) have failed to persuade Carcaterra to reveal his sources, the film relies on the emotional candor of the actors to make believers of us all. Pitt and Patric offer unflinching glimpses into haunted men. In less-defined roles, Eldard and Crudup also excel. The sleepers can't discuss the year inside that they spent with Nokes, even with each other. When Shakes finally opens up to Father Bobby, Levinson lets us read the horror on the priest's face in a harrowing close-up that De Niro renders with indelible impact.
Unlike The Boys of St. Vincent, Sleepers offers no insights into the torment of men like Nokes. The film's concern is for the abused boys, superbly played by Brad Renfro as Michael, Joe Perrino as Shakes, Geoffrey Wigdor as John and Jonathan Tucker as Tommy, who rightly dominate the film's first hour. As in Diner and Avalon, Levinson shows a keen eye for the pangs of adolescence. Michael Ballhaus' luminous cinematography polishes those days of talking sex and playing stickball until Hell's Kitchen shines like a concrete Camelot. Idealized? You bet. That's why the loss of this world must be avenged with the same broad strokes that you'd expect from the Count of Monte Cristo.
"We lived inside every book we read, every movie we saw," Carcaterra wrote. "We were Cagney in Angels With Dirty Faces. . . . We were Ivanhoe on our own city streets." These words are the key to Sleepers' vaultingly romantic style and its core truth. No one challenges Carcaterra's previous nonfiction book, A Safe Place, in which he learns, at 14, that his father had served time for killing his first wife. It's public record. Sleepers, for all the doubts it raises, is the work of a man who speaks for absent friends and "for the children we were." It's his secret heart. Leave the matter of getting away with murder to Carcaterra and his conscience. Onscreen, in the faces of these lost children, the pain is real.