Sleepers is a 1996 American legal crime drama film written, produced, and directed by Barry Levinson, and based on Lorenzo Carcaterra's 1995 book of the same name. The film stars Kevin Bacon, Jason Patric, Brad Pitt, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Minnie Driver, Vittorio Gassman, Brad Renfro, Jeffrey Donovan, Terry Kinney, Joe Perrino, Geoffrey Wigdor, Jonathan Tucker and Billy Crudup. The title is a slang term for juveniles who serve sentences longer than nine months.[5]

Sleepers (movie poster).jpg
North American theatrical release poster
Directed byBarry Levinson
Screenplay byBarry Levinson
Based onSleepers
by Lorenzo Carcaterra
Produced by
CinematographyMichael Ballhaus
Edited byStu Linder
Music byJohn Williams
Distributed byWarner Bros. (North America)
PolyGram Filmed Entertainment[1][2] (International)
Release date
  • October 18, 1996 (1996-10-18)
Running time
147 minutes[2]
CountryUnited States
Budget$44 million[3]
Box office$165.6 million[4]

Sleepers was theatrically released in the United States on October 18, 1996 and was a box-office hit, grossing $165.6 million against a $44 million budget.


Lorenzo "Shakes" Carcaterra, Tommy Marcano, Michael Sullivan, and John Reilly are childhood friends living in Hell's Kitchen in the 1960s. Father "Bobby" Carillo, their parish priest and a youth offender himself in the past, tries to teach them right from wrong. They still play pranks and start running small errands for local gangster King Benny.

In the summer of 1967, the four boys steal a hotdog cart, which they accidentally roll down the subway stairs, severely injuring an elderly man. They are all sentenced to serve time at Wilkinson Home for Boys in Upstate New York; Shakes is given 6 to 12 months, while the others are given 12 to 18 months. During their stay, they are constantly subjected to sexual abuse and torture by head guards Sean Nokes, Henry Addison, Ralph Ferguson and Adam Styler.

While at the facility, they participate in Wilkinson's annual football game between the guards and inmates. Michael convinces black inmate Rizzo Robinson to help win the game. Humiliated, the guards move the boys to solitary confinement for weeks, where they are systematically beaten. Rizzo does not survive and his family is told that he had died of pneumonia.

In the spring of 1968, shortly before Shakes' release from Wilkinson, he suggests the boys publicly report the abuse. The others refuse, with Michael asserting that no one would believe them or care, and they vow never to speak of it again. The night before Shakes is released, Nokes and the other guards arrange a "farewell party" in which the four boys are again brutally abused.

In 1981, John and Tommy, now career criminals, unexpectedly encounter Sean Nokes in a Hell's Kitchen pub. Confronting him, he dismisses the abuse he put them through, and John and Tommy shoot him dead in front of witnesses. Michael, now an assistant district attorney, gets himself assigned to the case; he secretly intends to botch the prosecution and expose what the guards at Wilkinson's did. With Shakes, now a reporter, they form a plan to free John and Tommy and get revenge on the other Wilkinson abusers. With the help of King Benny and Carol, their childhood friend, they carry out their plan using information compiled by Michael on the backgrounds of the guards, helped by Danny Snyder, an alcoholic lawyer, to defend John and Tommy.

Michael secretly drafts scripted questions in advance, so Snyder casts significant doubt on the testimony of a woman who witnessed the murder, and two other witnesses are intimidated into silence. For Michael's plan to fully succeed, however, he must damage Nokes' reputation and convincingly place John and Tommy at another location at the time of the shooting. Ferguson, when called as a witness, admits that Nokes, like the other guards, used to abuse the boys. To clinch the case, however, a key witness was still needed for John and Tommy's alibi. Shakes has a long talk with Father Bobby, who resists at first, but after learning the truth, reluctantly agrees to perjure himself. At trial, Father Bobby testifies John and Tommy were with him at a New York Knicks game at the time of the shooting and shows three ticket stubs to prove it. As a result, John and Tommy are acquitted.

The remaining guards are also punished for their crimes: Henry Addison, now a politician who still molests children, is abducted and killed near the local airport by black gangsters led by Rizzo's older brother, Eddie "Little Caesar" Robinson, who heard the truth about Rizzo's death from King Benny; Adam Styler, now a corrupt police officer, is imprisoned for taking bribes and murdering a drug dealer; and Ralph Fergurson, a social worker, loses his job and family and is left to live alone with his guilt for the rest of his life.

Michael, Shakes, John, Tommy, and Carol meet at a local bar to celebrate. It is the last time the four are together. Shakes remains in Hell's Kitchen as a reporter; Michael quits the DA's office, moves to the English countryside, becomes a carpenter and never marries; John and Tommy both die before age 30 - John succumbs to liver cirrhosis due to excessive alcohol consumption while Tommy is ambushed and murdered by rival criminals. Carol remains in Hell's Kitchen as a social worker; she has a son, naming him John Thomas Michael Martinez, with the nickname "Shakes".



The first words spoken in the film are: "This is a true story about friendship that runs deeper than blood".[6][7] However, the truthfulness and factual accuracy of the film—and the book upon which it is based—were challenged by the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church and School in Manhattan (the school attended by Lorenzo Carcaterra) and by the Manhattan District Attorney's office, among others.[7][6] Carcaterra has acknowledged that most details in the book were fictionalized, but maintained that the events described in the book actually occurred.[7][8]


Box officeEdit

In its opening weekend the film grossed $12,305,745 in 1,915 theaters in the United States and Canada, debuting atop of the box office. Sleepers grossed $53,315,285 domestically and $112,300,000 internationally for a worldwide total of $165,615,285.[4]

Critical responseEdit

Rotten Tomatoes gives the film an overall approval rating of 73% based on 56 reviews, with an average rating of 6.60/10. The consensus summarizes: "Old friendships are awakened by the need for revenge, making Sleepers a haunting nightmare burdened by voiceover yet terrifically captured by Barry Levinson."[9] Review aggregator Metacritic gives it a weighted average score of 49 out of 100 based on 18 critics,[10] indicating "mixed or average reviews".

Critics praised the performances of De Niro, Hoffman, Bacon, and the young cast,[11] as well as the cinematography and production design.[11][6] However, multiple critics said the film loses focus in its second half.[12][13][14] Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly wrote, “Sleepers wants to do something impossible — merge the mournful, drenched-in-shame emotions of child abuse with the huckster gamesmanship of a contraption like The Sting.”[15]

David Ansen of Newsweek criticized Levinson’s script and reasoned the adult characters of Shakes, Michael, John, and Tommy were not fully fleshed out.[14] Roger Ebert awarded the film three out of four stars, but said it did not engage enough in the moral issues it purported to be about.[6] Steve Davis of The Austin Chronicle wrote, “What a more interesting film this would have been had Levinson found a way to integrate the past and the present so that one informed the other.”[16]

When the film was released there was major controversy over how much of the novel had been invented by its author.[17]


Award Category Nominee(s) Result Ref.
Academy Awards Best Original Dramatic Score John Williams Nominated [18]
London Film Critics Circle Awards British Supporting Actress of the Year Minnie Driver[a] Won [19]
Young Artist Awards Best Performance in a Feature Film – Leading Young Actor Joe Perrino Nominated [20]
Best Performance in a Feature Film – Supporting Young Actor Geoffrey Wigdor Nominated
YoungStar Awards Best Performance by a Young Actor in a Drama Film Joe Perrino Nominated [21]
Brad Renfro Nominated

Home mediaEdit

The film was released on VHS by Warner Home Video in 1997. The film was released in DVD on November 3, 2009 and also in Blu-Ray on August 2, 2011.[22]



  1. ^ "Sleepers (35mm)". Australian Classification Board. 30 August 2019. Retrieved 30 November 2021.
  2. ^ a b "SLEEPERS (18)". British Board of Film Classification. 21 October 1996. Retrieved 15 May 2013.
  3. ^ "Sleepers (1996) - Financial Information". The Numbers. Nash Information Services, LLC.
  4. ^ a b "Sleepers (1996)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 15 October 2021.
  5. ^ Streitfeld, David (26 July 1995). "Sleepers': A Rude Awakening?". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 29 July 2022.
  6. ^ a b c d Ebert, Roger (18 October 1996). "Sleepers movie review & film summary (1996)".
  7. ^ a b c Weinraub, Bernard (22 October 1996). "'Sleepers' Debate Renewed: How True Is a 'True Story'?". The New York Times.
  8. ^ Hampson, Rick (31 July 1995). "'Sleepers': Nonfiction Without the Facts".
  9. ^ Sleepers at Rotten Tomatoes
  10. ^ Sleepers at Metacritic  
  11. ^ a b Maslin, Janet (18 October 1996). "Artificiality Vanquishes An Authenticity Issue". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 29 July 2022.
  12. ^ Stack, Peter (18 October 1996). "FILM REVIEW -- 'Sleepers' Guaranteed to Keep Audiences Awake". SF Gate. Retrieved 29 July 2022.
  13. ^ Turan, Kenneth (18 October 1996). "A Graphic Tale of Revenge". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 29 July 2022.
  14. ^ a b Ansen, David (27 October 1996). "Vigilante Chic Is Back". Newsweek. Retrieved 29 July 2022.
  15. ^ Gleiberman, Owen (1 November 1996). "Sleepers". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 29 July 2022.
  16. ^ Davis, Steve (25 October 1996). "Movie Review: Sleepers". Austin Chronicle. Retrieved 29 July 2022.
  17. ^ Weinraub, Bernard (22 October 1996). "'Sleepers' Debate Renewed: How True is a 'True Story'?". The New York Times.
  18. ^ "The 69th Academy Awards | 1997". Academy Awards. Retrieved 29 July 2022.
  19. ^ "Sleepers - Awards & Festivals". MUBI. Retrieved 29 July 2022.
  20. ^ "18th Annual Youth in Film Awards". Archived from the original on 2 April 2011. Retrieved 29 July 2022.
  21. ^ "1997's 2nd Annual Young Star Awards". Archived from the original on 1 August 2009. Retrieved 30 July 2022.
  22. ^ "Sleepers Blu-ray". Retrieved 29 July 2022.

External linksEdit