Flashback/Backslide joined the Argumentative August series hosted by Movie Rob and Ten Stars or Less with a review of Sleepers. Head over to read the review and all the other great reviews of courtroom dramas.
For a while, Sleepers lingered on the edge of my Top 10 favorite movie list. Given a firm bump by my love of Robert De Niro and all movies set in old school New York City, I remained fond of the movie years after I first saw it. And until last weekend, I had only seen the movie once. I was a bit hesitant to rewatch it given my poor track record with revisiting movies I loved after one viewing.
So finally I made my way back to Sleepers. Luckily things didn’t turn out as sourly as I expected but time definitely took the shine off the experience (except for Robert De Niro who is still great). The movie is at its best in the beginning. Four boys grow up in an alternate reality of Hell’s Kitchen where Daredevil doesn’t exist. Aside from domestic violence (which the film almost glosses over) our four stars lead fairly ordinary cinematic lives filled with peeping into women’s locker rooms (which is somehow infinitely less creepy here than in Porky’s) and losing a stickball game to make a disabled girl feel better. Typical 90’s views of 60’s youths.
But soon things change. If you missed the exact moment where badness is coming, the movie does a pretty good job of pointing it out with one quote: “The temperature topped out at ninety-eight degrees the day our lives were forever altered.” The movie gets bonus points for not saying “the day our lives were forever changed.” That was a close call for heavy-handed writing. Luckily opting for “altered” instead of “changed” adds layers of subtlety and a touch of sophistication. The movie is full of gems like “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” and “the future lay sparkling ahead, and we thought we would know each other forever.” Those are the first and last lines of the movie. At first glance they feel honest and revealing but it’s best not to dwell on them long. Or any one line really.
Like in his other movies, director Barry Levinson chases after a mood more than discrete moments. The entirety of the movie feels like the repressed nightmare it portrays. Like reading from a diary, moments pass by with unclear boundaries and add up to a patchy, half-remembered whole. That structure is deliberate and almost works until the court sequences come into play. Points and counterpoints are key to any court scene and the glazed over presentation of the legal maneuvering detaches us from the proceeding. Despite frequent narration that Brad Pitt’s character “puts it all on his shoulders” and “will do anything for his buddies” (or something like that) it’s tough to tell what exactly our heroes are after, other than getting a priest to help cover up a murder and convincing the Bunk to kill another guy. I would have much preferred a more deliberate handling of the court case and a clearer cause-effect / action-reaction format. But that’d split the movie into two disjointed halves with the ephemeral beginning leading into a sharply focused finale. Instead we get a solid first half with appropriate tone which spills into a weaker second half with incongruent tone.