A REVIEW OF THE FILM SLEEPERS (1996)
Sleepers is a 1996 crime drama written and directed by Barry Levinson, starring Kevin Bacon, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Brad Pitt.
Choosing Truth over Facts of Life
by Sam Hall, 9 May 2022
Sleepers (1996) was recently added to Netflix's playlist, so we can be sure this twenty six-year-old "classic" passes today's stringent woke standards. A film which depicts pederasty as an evil too vast to be safely exterminated by due legal process is actually closer to the popular sentiment of today than when it was first released. In the film Liberty Heights, Barry Levinson took on the ignorant 1950's prejudices directed at Jews and African Americans. In Sleepers he suggests mere bigotry and hatred is not enough to deal with a minority whom we all can agree have no human qualities. So, whether he helped create such attitudes or was just in synch with their development, he can certainly claim to have made a significant cultural contribution.
The film is based on the 1995 novel of the same name by Lorenzo Carcaterra. Four boys in early adolescence recklessly injure a man during a prank and get sent to a juvenile detention centre. For the duration of their stay they are subjected to cruel physical and sexual abuse. In the second half of the film we follow the boys, now men, taking the opportunity for revenge on the abusive guards. Carcaterra claims the story is true, as does the film, but it is not. This is often alluded to in discussions of the film, but always in a way which extends victim-privilege to Carcaterra. He claims it is his truth and this nonsense formulation is respectfully allowed to stand. It is quoted as weighty counter-argument to the conclusive fact of there being zero evidence for any of the events, including a major public trial, ever having happened.
In fact the lie at the heart of this film is one of its more interesting and vital features. Hysterical pedo-panic claims began to arise in the seventies, and it all kicked off with some rather unruly imaginings. Deeply repressed memories bubbled to the surface to tell of supersonic jets circling the earth for the sole purpose of raping and barbequing toddlers. Plenty of real lives were destroyed to honour these deranged confabulations, but as a movement it never went properly mainstream. It was a bit much. One needed a Charlie Manson mindset to really buy into it.
By the nineties, there were signs the post-sixties sex panics were starting to ease. Pro-sex feminists like Camille Paglia and Christina Hoff Sommers were in the ascendant. But as the new millennium dawned we cycled back into our neurotic fears and hatreds, and Sleepers stands a useful cultural marker. The film rehabilitates all the earlier too-lurid pedo panics, gives them a more sober foundation. The film depicts something that could have happened. The fact that we know it didn't is this film's way of paying homage to all the my truth's out there doing yeoman service for so many needy abuse industries.
The lie of the story's factual basis may also help us decipher the film and novel's portentous bit of catch-phrase nonsense: "When Friendship Runs Deeper Than Blood." Is one supposed to take this riddle seriously? What, for a poor forked creature, runs deeper than blood? Semen, perhaps? In the original swamp of life, daring gadabout microbes were swapping packets of DNA long before the evolution of haemoglobin. I suspect, though, it's hinting at something much more profound and transcendental: Victimhood. A priestly class requiring of us mere mortals an eternal vow of silence. Hence: "A True Story".
If the film had contained itself to a revenge yarn, which is what it keeps insisting it is, then it might have been a harmless romp. But Levinson, in his writer-director films, always strives for a novelistic sensibility, a broader canvas with detailed social observation. In Sleepers this means we're treated to a lengthy meditation on how adolescent boys relate to the men in their lives. These men run the full gamut, from the saintly Father Bobby to the roguish fat store owner to dangerous thieves and sitting-duck hot dog vendors, along with many more. The boys deal with these everyday interactions in the way young teen boys always have: with pluck, inventiveness, humour and a never-to-be-denied sense of adventure. There are laughs and dangers and opportunities galore in this world, but overall what we have is a good healthy slice of life in the red-blooded working-class district of Hell's Kitchen. Until, that is, evil wearing a Kevin Bacon sneer enters the frame.
As Sean Nokes, a guard at the boys' reformatory, Bacon gives a superb performance as the most loathsome pedo monster a panic-starved audience could desire. Nokes represents in monstrous form what must be repressed to create the erotic-free jungle of Levinson's Hell's Kitchen. Everything we need to know about Nokes is given us in his first scene. He forces the boy Lorenzo to strip in front of him and his glazed look of lust rises like a miasma, a poisoning of blood and air. The serpent has once again slithered into the garden.
It is historically untenable to suggest the adolescent boys in this movie would have led the sort of adventurous, engaged lives they led, without there being some pederastic accompaniment. Whether the boys embraced or rejected such opportunities would be up to them. It has, for millions of years, simply been part of the territory -- in the same way an attractive (or even unattractive) young woman can expect her share of sexual attention as she goes about her innocent business of buying a hat or walking her Pekinese. But it is not untenable today for a filmmaker to create a de-sexed facade of "innocent" male adolescence. In fact it is a script he'd be well advised not to deviate from. Levinson supercharges this facade, its tensions and repressions, by introducing us to the boys lying shirtless on a rooftop. We're immediately in the midst of a group of attractive, restless, semi-naked adolescent boys looking for adventure. So by the time loathsome Nokes introduces a shocking, supposedly discordant note of sexual interest, we are well primed to react with disgust and fury. The fact Nokes as a man is fully deserving of our disgust and fury is the key to this film's popular classic status.
Levinson very neatly -- he is after all a skilled filmmaker -- taps into the fears of what is being repressed in today's male adolescence, and then exploits it to reassure the audience that all it need do is get far more serious about doubling down on those fears. Masturbation and boyish sex-play used to be the more direct locus of these fears, but today it's the pedo-monster; the cause remains stubbornly unchanged and impossible to extinguish. Until we can find a way to genetically edit the sexuality out of adolescent boys, we will be stuck with some version of this endlessly inventive game of fear and loathing.
The film's nightmare violent boy-rape literally takes place in a subterranean hellscape. We repeatedly follow the defeated, terror-stricken lads down dank underground tunnels to locked dungeons of unspeakable depravity. We get many jump-cut hints, luridly sickening, fantastically suggestive; we get to hear the orchestral shrieks of pain as boys are pistol whipped and brutally fucked. Levinson should be consulted by governments for their round-the-clock safety campaigns. The government ads depicting this or that horror are always too heavy-handed, allowing us the freedom (if not the duty) to laugh and scoff. Levinson is too good for that. And the result is impressively vile. No punishment would be too severe for creeps like this.
In a film concerned with relations between men and boys, the primary example is that between Father Bobby Carillo and Lorenzo Carcaterra, or "Shakes", the character based on the author. (Incidentally, if I ever get round to writing a fake memoir, I wonder if I'll be game to give myself a childhood nickname like "Shakespeare"? Got to admire Carcaterra's chutzpah. Although, read his fantasy tell-all and you'll realise some heavy irony might be involved.) At first Father Bobby seems an oddly deficient character, the film's stand-out one-dimensional cliché, a priest who smokes and drinks and has had a rumble or two and has, wouldn't you know, a heart of gold. But as the film progresses, it becomes clear that it is Robert De Niro himself who carries the character's real identity and meaning -- the name of "Father Bobby" is coincidentally apposite. In 1996, no one believes a priest will love a boy without abusing him. But Father Bobby De Niro as a secular saint, a crinkly-eyed messenger from heavenly Hollywood -- in him we trust.
The final stages of the film tend toward something of a dramatic coming out for De Niro. He proudly takes the stand to perjure himself, to spit in the eye of his supposed God and the law of the land, because he is devoutly committed to helping a couple of professional hit men complete their scot-free killing of a pedo-monster. The fact Nokes clearly deserved to die a painful death is the sort of thing which used to provoke great ethical crises for Christians, not to mention ethical people in general. Not so for Father Bobby. He hems and haws a bit, but once on the stand, lying like wizard, he's in his element, even gets a bit jiggy with it as he smiles and swears by Almighty God. Perhaps his friendship with the boys, which ultimately proved so lacking in influence and effect, prompted him to jump at the chance of actually doing something for a change.
Despite Levinson's undoubted movie-making talent, we do at one stage come close to toppling into absurdity. Lorenzo as adult, troubled, pained, haunted, takes a quiet moment to fondle his rosary beads. But this of course sets off yet another gruesome series of flashbacks. To the rape dungeon. Where the trembling lad is forced to bend over, spread 'em, and recite the Lord's prayer as he's raped. And the demonic Nokes laughs while he does it! With the rosary beads and cross being flung around during this chaotic, jump-cut horror scene, I couldn't help thinking of The Exorcist. At least the demon ravisher in that movie retained a sense of humour: "Do you know what he did...your cunting Carcaterra?"
But one shouldn't laugh at the rape of adolescent boys. It's quite a serious matter, in fact. For a rather lengthy two-and-a-half hours, this sombre revelation is hammered home almost as insistently as Nokes is presented as the face of pederasty. All of today's carefully excised boysexuality ends up in the stinking pit that is Sean Nokes. That's why he's given no back story. That's why the asexual nature of relations between boys and men is so meticulously detailed outside the dungeon. That's why Nokes's first look of lust at Lorenzo packed a Sharon Stone-type wallop -- it intruded sex into a realm we have so furiously sealed off and declared pure. Two thousand years on, despite the reduction to lamb-like meekness of the official Church, original sin continues to burn like napalm, yammers on in the collective imagination like Bobby De Niro conducting a Trump sermon.
So the dice were loaded deliberately and without stint. Our ur-pederast could not have been more evil without crossing into the supernatural -- a line which was constantly flirted with via the darkly psychedelic renderings of the various rapes, bashings, humiliations and tortures. And yet Levinson still ran into a problem with his good guys. He didn't make Milton's mistake in Paradise Lost of having his Satanic character come off as the most charismatic. Nokes in Sleepers has no redeeming qualities, has not a scintilla of bad-boy appeal. All well and good. But outside of the evil pedo's clutches, the boys are surrounded by men of good will who, well, don't really add up to a hill of beans.
King Benny the mob boss, Fat Mancho the store owner, the prison English teacher, Father Bobby Carillo: all these men cared for the boys, up to a point. Thirteen years after the prison rape saga, they rallied round to help deliver a cleverly wrought revenge. But it's noticeable they had no real influence in the boys' lives when it mattered. Only Father Bobby even bothered to visit them in prison. Why was there no Good to go up against the Evil which fell in their way? These men ultimately seemed to offer no more than a form of benevolent bureaucratic service. They were friendly and forthcoming with the cookie-cutter advice when called on, but that's about as far as it went. Given the boys had no positive father-influence in their lives, these so-called good men became the vacuum into which the Nokes' filth was sucked.
In a film concerned with man-boy relations, the most emotionally powerful scene is between Father Bobby and Lorenzo, shortly before the boy is to enter the reformatory. This is every adolescent boy's crossroads writ large. Lorenzo for the first time drops his wise-cracks, the semi-flirtatious tough-guy banter he has long shared with Bobby, to make a painfully naked and tearful plea for help. After assuming his old altar boy role with the priest, he says, "I could run. We all could run... Nobody's going to care about us, about where we go." It's a barely concealed plea for Father Bobby to play the white knight, rescue the boy, safeguard his future manhood by employing the old pre-Christian Cretan tradition of boy-love kidnapping. Bobby responds with a banal, distancing bromide of how running doesn't solve anything, we all must face our battles in life. In other words, you're on your own kid, but geez I wish ya well! From this point on, as Lorenzo's world implodes, he doesn't even see the point of confiding in Bobby any more.
To view the friendship between Bobby and Lorenzo through a pre-modern, non-Judeo-Christian lens is instructive. It's clearly a situation where Bobby is courting Lorenzo, honourably and increasingly successfully. His constant attention, interest, guidance, help, wins the boy's loyalty and affection. Lorenzo's one vision of transcending his Hell's Kitchen start in life is to emulate Bobby and become a priest. This unspoken, unrealised pederastic dynamic helps explain what for many has been a sticking point with the film. Is it believable, or acceptable, that Father Bobby takes the witness stand at the end to perjure himself? Not, I would contend, without him carrying a large deal of guilt for his former decision to stay safely ensconced within his religion's and wider society's guardrails. His blowing them up thirteen years later was fairly pointless -- the two gangsters he saved with his lies met violent, drug-addled deaths not long after -- but if his self-immolation came from a deeper guilt, one he cannot fully explain to himself (witness De Niro's extraordinary tortured-sphinx close up as he hears the details of what Lorenzo suffered), then the shocking perjury does make sense. Bobby had achieved the time-honoured, elevated position of being an impressive boy's lover, but, at the most crucial moment, walked away from the responsibility that entails.
Despite Sleepers' great glaring marquee message that pederasty is a crime too abhorrent to record with a steady camera or a three-dimensional character, it inadvertently allows for a quietly persistent counter-argument. It points out the high price sometimes paid by boys when good men feel compelled to maintain a spotless approach to what used to be a vital, red-blooded area of human engagement.