[pullquote cite=”” type=”left, right”][amazon text=Amazon&template=carousel&chan=That Film Guy&asin=B004JRQ0V8][/pullquote] Following the staggering success of The Godfather films, mafia-themed, New York-set dramas became something of a sub-genre themselves in the late 1980s and 1990s. Sleepers, which owes a fair bit to Francis Ford Coppola’s magnum opus is one of the more morally suspect and really interesting films to come out of that time.
Shakes, Tommy, Mikey and John are childhood friends in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York City in the 1960s. Their young lives are damaged forever following the attempted theft of a food cart that results in the accidental death of a businessman. They are sent to serve terms at Wilkinson’s young persons correctional facility, which brings them under the watchful eye of Nokes (Kevin Bacon) who physically and sexually assaults them. A chance meeting in the 1980s between two of the boys John (Ron Eldard) and Tommy (Billy Crudup) results in Nokes being killed. Shakes (Jason Patric), now a journalist hatches a plan with Mikey (Brad Pitt), now a young DA to get their friends off the charge, although their innocence relies on Father Bobby (Robert De Niro) taking the stand to create them an alibi.
Rippling with historical style, Sleepers very carefully sets its narrative in two completely different eras. The 1960s is all sepia tones and is reminiscent of a Martin Scorsese film, while the 1980s is dark, gritty and full of the filth that belies the motivations of the characters.
Its attempts to create believable characters in what is ostensibly an exploitation film is admirable and impressive. Patric and Pitt as the plan-hatchers and revenge-seekers are excellent, while De Niro brings his own irresistible charisma to the fore and Bacon is a suitable dislikeable villain. The best performance however belongs to Dustin Hoffman, whose weak patsy lawyer is a jumble of whispers and mumbles. It really is a stellar cast that drags the film into more mainstream appeal than the subject matter suggests it should be.
Where Sleepers falls into shakier ground is in its morality. It suggests that sexual assault is akin to murder and that we must accept that mafia-style revenge is something to be rooted for. The plan hatched by Shakes and Mikey relies on De Niro’s Father Bobby to lie on the stand for them. This in itself lends credence to the idea that the familial protectiveness of society overrides not only the morality of we as human beings, but even the devout man’s moral faith. It’s an interesting idea that is never really investigated, leaving us to just accept the decision-making of the most rounded character in the film.
It is impressive then that we as an audience are lead to just accept these choices without too much problem. The sign of superficially good film-making for sure, although it does eventually hold the film back from reaching the classic ground of something like The Godfather, upon which a lot of its themes of family are lifted.