When one great performance dominates a film, such as Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man, it is not easily forgotten. Yet, occasionally, when several great actors unite in a piece of work and consistently balance and complement one another, it is often the case that we forget such a film as there was not one performance that stood out above the rest. Rain Man director Barry Levinson made such a film in the form of Sleepers in 1996. Bringing together the likes of Brad Pitt, Robert De Niro, Jason Patric, Kevin Bacon and Dustin Hoffman, Levinson directed a masterpiece and a film that I believe outshines anything else he has made since. The story of four boys who make one small mistake that will ultimately effect and damage the rest of their lives, Sleepers revolves around a loss of innocence and the importance of justice, in its many different forms. Four adolescent boys, living in the heart of New York’s infamous neighbourhood, “Hell’s Kitchen”, are sent to detention centre following a petty prank. Here, the brutality and torture that they face will destroy the way that they view the world. A decade later, when an opportunity for revenge is taken, the film opens up into a moral discussion about our human right to justice and revenge.
The intense story is delivered exquisitely through three separate sections of the film. With such a captivating story at the heart of this film, there is little need for any glamour or over-dramatisation. A confident story goes hand in hand with some career defining performances to make Sleepers the striking and entrancing film that it is. Sleepers does not age. It is a timeless piece of contemporary American cinema that often seems to be forgotten about. De Niro, in the role of the boy’s friend, priest and father figure, gives one of the most powerful performances of his career. A performance that is often lost in the memories of his more iconic protagonists such as Travis Bickle and Jake La Motta. Kevin Bacon is in an unusually sinister role here, as one of the boys’ abusers, and delivers the role remarkably well. Jason Patric is sustainable as the lead character for the final chapter of the film and gives a very simplistic performance that provides a platform for the story. Brad Pitt and Dustin Hoffman give abnormally quiet performances and sink into the background slightly. This is not a criticism by any means. Both actors demonstrate their ability to compliment other performers and emphasise the importance of story.
There is a constant sense of hopelessness that fills the film from start to finish; a feeling of unease and entrapment that takes many different forms throughout the story. The desperation of certain characters and the focus on a loss of innocence remains consistent throughout the narrative. Almost every character faces a different kind of moral battle and it is the extension of every character that keeps Sleepers entertaining and interesting. A heartfelt story, a great pace and structure and the basic approaches to performance make Sleepers one of the most admirable pieces of modern American film. If one incident changed your course of events for the worse, would you hesitate to condemn those responsible? Sleepers asks the big questions in a very clever way.
Thanks for reading and let’s all keep supporting our beloved film industry.