Sleepers (1996)


New York crime film with a serious message

Sleepers is a New York City crime story that illustrates the long-term damaging effects of child abuse.  The movie features an all-star cast of New York natives that uniquely captures the city and was written by New Yorker Lorenzo Carcaterra.


The Sleepers story starts in 1960’s Hell’s Kitchen where four young friends, “Shakes” Carcaterra, Michael Sullivan, Tommy Marcano, and John Reilly, are enjoying their summer in the streets of Manhattan.  In what seems like an innocent prank, the boys run off with a hot dog cart.  They lose control of the cart, and it tumbles down a subway stair, seriously injuring an old man. 

The boys wind up in a juvenile detention facility in upstate New York because of the crime.  There they are routinely sexually abused by several guards including the sadistic Sean Nokes.

The movie flashes forward to the 1980’s where Tommy Marcano and John Reilly, played by New York natives Billy Crudup and Ron Eldard respectively, are drinking in a Hell’s Kitchen bar.  They spot their abusive guard Sean Nokes, played by Kevin Bacon eating alone in the rear of the bar.  Unfortunately for Nokes, the pair have never overcome their abuse.  Both are Hell’s Kitchen Irish mobsters with serious alcohol problems.  They take their revenge, shooting and killing Nokes in front of bar patrons with seemingly no regard for the consequences.  Their rage runs deeper than logic.    

The two are arrested and indicted on homicide charges.  The Assistant District Attorney assigned to the case is none other than their friend “Shakes” Carcaterra, played by Queens native, Jason Patric. ADA Carcaterra creates an elaborate plan to get Marcano and Reilly acquitted and expose the child abuse ring at the juvenile facility.  He elicits the help of Michael Sullivan (Brad Pitt), a neighborhood priest (Robert DeNiro), their friend Carol (Minnie Driver) as the assigned defense attorney (Dustin Hoffman).   



The film’s all-star cast makes for great cinema.  Jason Patric and DeNiro are particularly outstanding and provide some real drama and tension as the plot unfolds.  The talent behind the camera is also notable.  Barry Levinson (The Natural, Rain Man) shows his directorial chops capturing the emotion of the story.  The music was written by John Williams (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jaws) who is undoubtedly the best composer in cinematic history.

The movie is allegedly based on the life of the book and screenplay’s author, Lorenzo Carcaterra.  There is some dispute of the accuracy of the story, but Carcaterra maintains it is mostly true.  The Manhattan DA’s office disputes that claim.  Regardless of its accuracy, Sleepers makes for a compelling drama.

One thing that may be lost in the accolades and awards that the film received is its message on child abuse.  This story may not be 100% accurate, but its depiction of the results of child sex abuse are.  Drug and alcohol problems, violence, depression, and a litany of psychological problems often follow abuse victims throughout their adult lives.  Many child abuse victims often grow to become victimizers themselves, creating a cycle that destroys lives.  It is critical that these crimes are treated with the seriousness that they warrant, and that these types of behaviors are never normalized. 

Sleepers is a great, if somewhat disturbing film.  It takes a complicated storyline and turns it into a well-acted film that keeps the plot together.  Sleepers runs about two and a half hours and can watched for free on Apple TV+ or rented on any major streaming service.  Enjoy the film as a great drama with a serious message that all kids need to be protected from evil people who would abuse children. 

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