The Best Movie You Never Saw: Sleepers

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’ll be looking at SLEEPERS!

THE STORY: Years after suffering horrific abuse from their reformatory guards, four men use a criminal trial to get revenge on their former tormentors.

THE PLAYERS: Starring: Jason Patric, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Brad Pitt, Brad Renfro, Kevin Bacon. Directed by Barry Levinson.

THE HISTORY: Back in 1995, Lorenzo Carcaterra's book, “Sleepers”, which he claimed was the true story of abuse he and his friends suffered in juvenile detention, and their plot to get even, was a hot title. The movie rights were immediately snapped up, and Barry Levinson, who already had RAIN MAN, GOOD MORNING VIETNAM and DISCLOSURE under his belt, signed on to write-and-direct. He was able to recruit Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman for key supporting parts, but no other piece of casting attracted more ink than Brad Pitt, who was then coming off LEGENDS OF THE FALL, and was the “It” guy of the moment. All of them, plus Jason Patric in what was promised would be the role that propelled him to the A-list, made SLEEPERS an event. But then it turned out Carcaterra’s book might not have been as true as he said.

''Every time I spoke to Lorenzo, and I was asking questions about details that I was trying to use in the screenplay, he would just rattle off information… If he was lying, it would be an astoundingly facile lie… To me the book makes sense and is credible.'' Barry Levinson1996 New York Times interview

As soon as the film kicked off production, story after story ran poking holes in Carcaterra’s account, with no record of him ever having been sent to a reformatory, and most significantly, no Assistant District Attourney in NY (like the one Pitt plays in the movie) having ever worked on a similar case. To his defense, Carcaterra admitted to changing names and locations – but it just didn’t add up.

Nevertheless, the film still did well at the box office. Back in ’96, the fact that the memoir might have been bogus actually wasn’t that big a deal, as there weren’t 24/7 internet sites around to poke holes in the story. Rather, it got covered in the NY/LA newspapers, but regular folks didn’t know – or care – if the story was false. Also this may have affected the reviews though, which were mixed, and outside of John Williams’s score, it was shut out of the Oscars and is somewhat obscure today.

WHY IT'S GREAT: SLEEPERS is one of Barry Levinson’s great movies. He’s always been an interesting director, going back and forth from utterly fantastic films like this one, to stuff like TOYS and ENVY, always popping up with a solid rebound when you least expect it (his HBO movies like YOU DON’T KNOW JACK have been consistently great). A veteran of movies like DINER, which have that strong brotherhood vibe, he was the ideal guy to tackle Carcaterra’s story, and whether or not it’s true is incidental twenty years later. It’s a great film that stands on its own, particularly the first half, which tackles the friendship between the boys and their eventual abuse. The late Brad Renfro is particularly good here, while Kevin Bacon is absolutely vile as their primary tormentor. Meanwhile, Robert De Niro is cast against type as the kindly local priest who serves as a father figure to the boys.

If anything, the second half of the film suffers slightly in comparison to the first, as elements of the story become hard to swallow, like the whole case resting on whether or not Patric, playing Carcaterra himself, will be able to convince a priest to lie under oath. Nevertheless, it’s compelling stuff, with Levinson doing an especially good job conveying the Hell’s Kitchen atmosphere of the sixties and the early eighties NYC grunge. The soundtrack is another plus, being filled top-to-bottom with classic hits.

BEST SCENE: The best scene in this movie actually features Ron Eldard and Billy Crudup as two of the boys all grown-up and encountering Bacon, but to post it here would be a spoiler. Instead, here’s a scene showcasing a young Wendell Pierce, as a drug lord confronted by Vittorio Gassman’s old-school Mafioso, who reveals what actually happened to his brother when he was locked up in Bacon’s reformatory.

SEE IT: SLEEPERS is available on Blu-ray and on iTunes, Google Play, Youtube, etc in HD.

PARTING SHOT: While not a Martin Scorsese-level masterpiece, SLEEPERS is nonetheless an unfairly maligned film. You can see why, after this, everyone thought Jason Patric would be the next big thing (it landed him SPEED 2 – unfortunately) and it holds up better than ever twenty years later as the drama surrounding Carcaterra’s book has died down. Check it out!


About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.