The star-studded Barry Levinson drama Sleepers (1996) is notable, within my scheme of things, for three reasons. Firstly, it is one of those movies that has me shaking my head slowly and sadly as the final credits roll and I head for the exit, asking myself: 'What on earth was that film about?' Secondly, it is one of those movies that – because of its slightly hot subject matter – hits odd buttons and gets strange responses in the popular press. Thirdly, the plot of the film is such that it prompted an amazing and virtually unprecedented editorial gesture in the film review pages of a certain populist Melbourne newspaper. About one or two paragraphs into the resident critic's review of the film, there was a sudden editorial disclaimer in bold type, saying something like: 'If you do not wish to have the plot of this film spoilt for you, please skip the next six paragraphs'. Little did I know that this was an Internet-created habit finally hitting the mainstream press; the declaration of plot 'spoilers'.
Sleepers is about a group of four working-class boys who are tough-and-tumble friends in New York's Hell's Kitchen in the mid 1960s. They are lovable, little-devil types, crazy but innocent, and rather like the kids who grow up to be gangsters in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America (1984). They are irascible pranksters, too, but one of their pranks, involving a mobile hot dog cart, goes tragically wrong, and it lands them in a Boy's Home. Once inside this institution – and here is the core motor of the plot – the boys are repeatedly, viciously abused by the guards, especially by an evil ringleader, Sean Nokes (Kevin Bacon).
Once the boys are released, the film cuts to the 1980s. Two of the boys, now streetwise operators, stumble upon Nokes and immediately kill him. The rest of the film is a very complicated court case. Everything is rigged in the trial. The prosecution lawyer trying the two suspected killers is their boyhood friend who was abused alongside them, Michael Sullivan (as an adult, played by Brad Pitt). The defence lawyer is also a patsy, merely performing the script that Sullivan has prepared for him. And outside the courtroom, the fourth guy of the original group, Lorenzo 'Shakes' Carcaterra (Jason Patric), is silently mobilising all his home-block mob connections to variously bring in or bring down the other abusers from the Boy's Home days.
I suggested earlier that this film garnered some odd responses in the press. The response that most caught my attention is the angry claim that the movie is, above and beyond anything else, homophobic. The argument basically runs like this: In movies where women kill the men who abused them – Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991) is a classic example – and these movies are big hits, there is often a public outcry, at least from easily bruised conservatives, that such depicted acts are unjust, immoral, vigilante behaviour. In movies that show men killing for revenge, there is rarely the same kind of charge or controversy. And in Sleepers, to give more weight to the supposed rightness of this particular revenge quest, the initial crime, the original sin, is presented as the most horribly imaginable act of all – the homosexual rape of heterosexual boys.
So does that make Sleepers homophobic? It does strike me that there is something logically wrong with this pointed comparison between female revenge movies and male revenge movies. Indeed, some might see it as the worst kind of forced, 'politically correct' reading or mangling of a film. Because if we say that it is alright for Thelma and Louise to step outside the law and kill their attacker – since rape is an exercise of power, not of sex – then we have to at least entertain the thought that it is just as alright for the four heroes in the film to go after the guys that abuse them – because that is an exercise of power too, not of sex. As a singular drama with potentially its own artistic force and truth, that has got to be allowed as a valid drama.
I am not trying to dismiss the idea that society at large regards women killing and men killing – whether on-screen or off – in different and unequal terms. If I felt that Sleepers was genuinely, deep down, a homophobic film, I would not be content to just skim that interpretation off the surface of the plot. I would want to ask: Is there some larger, all-pervasive nervousness about masculinity or heterosexuality in the film that is getting channelled into a dubious, demonising depiction of homosexuality? In Sleepers, I find only one small moment pointing to such a layer of male anxiety. The four guys in this movie do the all usual homo-social rituals of bonding, hugging, singing and hanging out. At one point, the only girl they all know bursts into the room, looks at the guys arm in arm, and says "Is this a gay bar or what?", and one of them replies cheekily, "Well, it was until you walked in". But that is just a moment, a joke – it cannot be construed as a grand-slam homophobic symptom.
But the big point I want to make about Sleepers is this: it does not really make any sense on any deep-structural, dramatic level. It has no artistic force, or truth. Every supposedly meaningful element in it is just a touch here or a smudge there, gussying up a picture that is, finally, very schematic and simplistic indeed. But before I get to that simple picture, I need to say a few things about the respected writer-director of the movie, Barry Levinson.
I have never been very fond of Levinson's films, except for his gangster epic Bugsy (1991), which had a terrific script by James Toback. From the first Levinson film that many raved about, Diner (1982), through Tin Men (1987) and Rain Man (1988), Levinson's films have bothered me and left me very dissatisfied. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, Levinson is fairly obsessed with tales of male pathos, and he delivers them to us in a particularly gooey way. He is always showing us characters who are rather nasty and objectionable in various regards at the start of the movie – but by the end of the movie, there is special pleading in their favour, syrupy nonsense about how downtrodden, victimised and forgotten by history these 'little men' are. The second thing I dislike about Levinson's sensibility is his penchant for reflective voice-overs from his leading men that ponder, in a banal fashion, on the changing times, days gone by, the dreams of yesteryear, and the loss of innocence – all the usual Wonder Years (1988-1993) stuff, with the same old reverie about the golden 1960s, just before everything went bad. This whole nostalgia trip on Levinson's part is also an element of his male pathos. But such nostalgia can really confuse the dramatic point in his films.
Consider a model scene from Sleepers. It is one of those synoptic, time-capsule scenes that I have come to hate so much in modern American movies. A golden oldie 1960s hit plays on the soundtrack, and the scene begins with one of the boys looking at the TV set. On the set, there is vintage black and white news footage of women marching and mainly, of course, burning their bras. The voice-over tells us it was the 'summer of love' – a phrase I am getting heartily sick of hearing at the movies. Having set up the precise time-capsule moment, the voice-over goes on to reflect that, while feminism was happening out there in the big, mainly middle-class world, in the little homes of Hell's Kitchen, men still beat their wives, and their wives still took it without ever walking out. We see this domestic abuse, in a rather surreal composition, going on vaguely in the background of the shot, while the boy keeps watching the box. What on earth is the meaning or the tone of this scene? I cannot say it is expressing nostalgia for the good old days of rugged, politically incorrect, working class wife-beating. But neither is the scene a bitter or biting comment about that horrid domestic situation, either.
This is the core of what I dislike about Levinson's films. He celebrates his men, with all their awful foibles, but he simultaneously tries to cover himself, by putting in little touches that make it seem he is being distant, critical and ironic about these men. I am amazed, every time, when film reviewers (reviewers of a rather literary persuasion) are taken in by these sleights-of-hand on Levinson's part – because that is what they are: sleights of hand, ruses, smokescreens.
There is a moment near the end of Sleepers where all the guys, and their token group girlfriend, begin bonding like crazy, celebrating their mutual history, and start singing the old standard "Walk Like A Man". Soon, their own voices fade out, orchestral music floods over the image and slow-motion sets in. There is a matching flashback to the boys dancing in the past, and that dread voice-over starts waxing sadly again about the days gone by, dreams used up and similar drivel. We are meant to think that here is a director with a real perspective on his material, who is not just wallowing in all the questionable feel-good vibe of the story. 'Walk Like A Man' – surely that is an ironic choice of pop song; and how about all the melancholy seeping into the scene through John Williams' music and through the slow-motion, as in a Sergio Leone film? That scene can be made to sound intelligent, but the way it plays is totally wet, contrived and, finally, incoherent. What exactly is Levinson's attitude towards this material? What point is he trying to make with all his showy, ponderous tricks?
There is another way of looking at Levinson's aspirations as a filmmaker. He seems to be a director who wants to be a particular kind of screen storyteller – sometimes epic, and always novelistic in inspiration. By novelistic, I mean a certain kind of busy narrative texture – a story mosaic bursting with different epochs and moods, many different characters, and all sorts of incidents and events, great and small. In the 1990s, a certain strand of American cinema really went into a novelistic texture, whether or not the films in question were literally derived from pre-existing novels. For example, certain of Scorsese's films – The Age of Innocence (1993) and Casino (1995), especially – and also Spike Lee's mammoth biopic, Malcolm X (1992). Casino is a very good example, because it is a narrative that feels perfectly free to shoot off in many different directions, and take all kinds of detours, spending 30 or 40 minutes of screen time on any such detour if it so pleases.
Levinson tries hard not to be a strictly linear, one-track storyteller. But his version of this novelistic style seems to me extremely compromised. The proof of that in Sleepers, as in all of his films, is in the amount of interesting side-long material that simply falls away in the course of the movie. Levinson gestures towards a certain largesse of character and incident, but finally, all he really cares about is what the Hollywood scriptwriting manuals call the 'through-lines' – and he will sacrifice anything at any point to maintain the severe economy of that main story.
Here are a few examples of this from Sleepers, which the film tries to cagily slip past the viewer's attention. After many references in the first half of the film to the domestic abuse situation mentioned earlier, there is a moment where the boy in question grabs Father Bobby the priest (De Niro) and pleads: "My Mom and Dad look like they're about to kill each other. Keep an eye on them". Do we ever see or hear anything of the development or conclusion of that tantalizing side-bar story? No. Also, there is a whole mini-drama in the film centred on an alcoholic and drug-dependent lawyer, Danny Snyder (Dustin Hoffman). To get into court and remain on his feet during this long and difficult trial, he has to clean up his act rather hurriedly. Film buffs may remember, with a tear in their eyes, Otto Preminger's classic Anatomy of a Murder (1959), which posed a very similar dilemma for one of its secondary characters. But what is this lawyer's story in Sleepers? Does he clean up his act? What does being part of this trial really mean to him? Again, there is scarcely a clue or a glimpse into this affecting little 'slice of life' on the side.
Base exploitation films, such as slasher movies and serial revenge films, are cheap and nasty. They are disturbing in their steely, sadistic amorality, but at least there is something direct, unapologetic and oddly admirable about that. Sleepers is a revenge film that, in the final analysis, is no more complex or refined than the cheapest and nastiest of violent B-movies. I do not accept the argument that there are moral nuances, shades of grey and thoughtful ambiguities carefully planted in this big-budget production. That is a con. Once again, it is literary wishful-thinking, prompted by the mistiness of Levinson's pseudo-novelistic style. So what, for instance, if Sleepers tells us in passing that the two men on trial have themselves become hardened criminals and even killers since their childhood, and so what if their decision to live like that is probably going to end badly? So what if Levinson sketches a violent social milieu that inevitably gives rise to violent actions, lies and compromises on everyone's part, whether they are nominally good or evil? That is all just icing on the cake, put there to hide something more brutal and basic, some good old fashioned eye-for-an-eye, 'savage justice of the streets'. This is evident from the way the film harps on its reference to a grand, righteous-revenge tale, Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo. It harps on this heavy-handed motif right down to an absurd insert of Jason Patric clutching his paperback copy of the novel just as the jury readies to announce its verdict.
In the end, all Sleepers really cares about is the big, synoptic picture – the line that says these boys were once sweet and innocent, but were horribly abused, so whatever they do to hit back at their assailants is acceptable. When I see that line expressed by a dirty little B-movie, such as I Spit on Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978), I can stand up and cheer, no matter how disturbed and disconcerted I may be by the cold spectacle of it all. However, when I see the same message buried inside an evasive, wishy-washy, pathos-ridden, bloated A-movie like Sleepers, then I am just left pitifully shaking my head, incredulous and extremely annoyed.
© Adrian Martin December 1996