One of the most poisonous societal ideals is that of masculinity. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of one’s manhood. But there is much terribly wrong with convincing boys and young men that their masculinity is marked by not showing emotion, never admitting to any abuse they may have experienced, or forcing them into a space where they feel their only option is physical violence versus confronting their rawest emotions.
Barry Levinson ’s Sleepers is a dramatic crime-thriller that encompasses the danger of constructing masculinity in such a way, by examining the lives of four boys from Hell’s Kitchen in the 1960s who went on to experience terrible rape and sexual torture at the hands of youth detention centre guards.
Their story illustrates the terrifying consequences of these illusions about masculinity, meaning men have to be rocks, immovable and unwavering in their lack of emotion. When the boys decide their masculinity will forever be tarnished, they make a choice to conceal their abuse.
This choice leads to the ultimate explosion of violence at the hands of the boys, all grown up, when the only possible way to erase the pain of what happened to them is to kill the men responsible. Except that the pain never really disappears, and no amount of constructed manliness, whether through violence or any other means, is enough to take away the emotional and mental scars of their rape.
The Men of Hell’s Kitchen: Crime and Catholics
Right after the quiet opening credits of Sleepers we’re introduced to the main cast of boys. All the while, Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons crank out “Walk Like a Man” from their album ” Big Girls Don’t Cry And Twelve Others ” . Immediately, Levinson entrenches us in masculinity.
Afterward, we are initiated into the Hell’s Kitchen dichotomy of professions into which men enter – either being a criminal or a man of the cloth. The film’s narrator, Lorenzo Carcaterra ( Jason Patric ), takes us through the neighbourhood, as well as his own home. The fathers and stepfathers are all abusive, Lorenzo’s father most of all. Then there are the boyfriends of the boys’ mothers who sometimes beat on them.
Essentially, every male figure surrounding Lorenzo and his friends is one of physical presence. Violence is all they know. Because, on the other side is King Benny, the local gangster. It is the story of his slow, calculated revenge on a man who severely beat him that eventually influences the later revenge Lorenzo chooses to take. Because every man in their lives is violent, they are unable to understand life and masculinity in any other way.
Their priest, Father Bobby ( Robert De Niro ), is meant to represent the religious attitudes of those in Hell’s Kitchen. However, he does not necessarily provide the typical comfort expected from such a character. Bobby is also a man willing to revert back to primitive masculinity, as opposed to one who might consider other options. For instance, one of the boys, John Reilly, is hospitalised by his mother’s abusive boyfriend. Father Bobby takes it upon himself to go find the man.
Bobby does not threaten legal action, nor does he tell the man to leave town or anything similar. Rather, he threatens the man with physical violence; in fact, he actually threatens him with death. Later he quips to the man “See you in church,” as if a physical threat and a Sunday sermon is enough to solve the problem. Because Bobby, representing Catholicism and the church, is ultimately like the other men in the neighbourhood, collar or not. No man in Levinson’s depiction of Hell’s Kitchen is capable of breaking the mould of toxic masculinity.
The one atypical male role model in the film is a man named Ron Carlson ( John Slattery ); he teaches class at the detention center. He gifts Lorenzo a copy of ” The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas . Ron uses literature to relate with the boy’s position, being locked up in a prison of sorts. At the same time, it is a different avenue as opposed to the typical tough guy violent image most of these young boys learned from their neighbourhoods.
Instead of ending up like Tommy or John being criminals and dying at a young age, Lorenzo becomes a journalist as a grown man. Ron is the only non-gangster role model to whom Lorenzo can look for guidance other than Father Bobby. Because of religion’s inability to do anything for him, Lorenzo sees Father Bobby more as a friend than any sort of solution.
Religion actually becomes a triggering subject for Lorenzo later, as one of his private instances of abuse involved the guards making him pray with his rosary while they sodomised him ruthlessly. Therefore, with no one else to whom he can turn his attention, Ron becomes more of a template than anyone else in the young man’s formative years, although he is but a dim light in the otherwise murky cave of Lorenzo’s life.
There’s no telling exactly what may have become of him if he were to go without someone outside of the dichotomous criminal or priest choices of career in the old neighbourhood. Regardless, all it took to steer him toward something better was one kind gesture of gifting a book to the boy in his darkest days.
Erasing Male Abuse With Violent Silence
The beginning of masculinity causing problems for the boys in Sleepers is during a scene where, for the first time, they openly discuss their abuse. “I don’t want anybody to know,” says John. “Either they won’t believe it, or they won’t give a shit,” Michael tells him and continues: “We’ve got no choice but to live it. And talkin’ makes living it harder. So we may as well not even talk about it.”
After this point, Lorenzo and the rest of the boys agree to conceal the fact they were raped. They do not form a clear plan of revenge; that comes much later, and begins by chance. What does happen is that their concept of masculinity overrides their pain.
Instead of trying their best to make somebody aware of their problems, they make a conscious choice and effort to avoid even the memory of what happened. It is years before Lorenzo admits to anybody he was raped. When he finally does, it is too late for anything other than bloodshed to cleanse their horrific experiences.
Halfway through the film, there is a poignant scene between Lorenzo and his father. Now that he’s a grown man and a plan for revenge is put in place, Lorenzo feels it’s possible to open up slightly. When he starts to talk about the ‘old days’, his father abruptly starts talking about something else. Afterwards, he only says: “But you’re doing good, right?” This is the end of their potential father-son moment. Lorenzo’s father, as we learn early in the movie, is a terribly abusive man with a violent temper.
Again, the father is one of those typical role models from the old neighbourhood; not quite a gangster, yet a man who solves his problems with fists. He doesn’t have any idea about his son’s abuse. Yet his own vision of masculinity prevents him from listening to a story about his son’s youth, perhaps afraid of what might be revealed, as he isn’t the type to allow the expression of emotion openly. It’s just another element in the lives of Lorenzo and the other boys which serves to conceal their abuse.
Ultimately, Father Bobby does represent the Catholic Church. He is also another man whose final decisions on justice come down to violence, time and time again. Similar to how he solved John’s beating with a threat of death, Bobby willingly lies to give Tommy and John an alibi for the night they committed murder as grownups. This goes against religion, adding to the sin of the murder he’s effectively excusing.
Though he represents another avenue than crime in the Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood, he only goes on to become a part of the masculinity problem. By not letting the criminal justice system do its job, he aids in concealing the abuse the boys experienced and this further damages them as men, never allowing for any true catharsis.
Revenge Solves Nothing and Leaves Men Wounded
Not all masculinity is dangerous. What can be considered toxic masculinity is the sort which society constructs, the type of masculinity bred in small neighbourhoods and towns where men are held to the standard of being emotionally hard and physically intimidating, or else branded as effeminate, maybe even homosexual. To eradicate those ideas would allow young men to grow up in environments where they are allowed to choose who and how they want to be without hindrance.
Sleepers illustrates a world in which boys are forced to be masculine in a sense that will not allow them proper catharsis. Lorenzo and his friends were raped and tortured, but due to the Hell’s Kitchen notion of masculinity, they were effectively forced into silence. Later in life this silence emerges as bloody violence and a priest giving murderers a false alibi.
Moreover, the violence in the film solves nothing. The boys never actually deal with their emotional distress; they choose revenge over psychiatric help. The only two people to ever hear about the abuse are Father Bobby and Carol (Minnie Driver ), both of whom become accessories to murder after the fact by helping Lorenzo and his friends get their revenge.
While their plan rids the world of pedophile guards, it does nothing to alleviate the mental wounds of these men. In the end, the criminal and religious dichotomy of the old neighbourhood comes together in an act of revenge to deal masculinity’s final blow to their lives.
So is revenge equal to a victim getting help for the lingering issues associated with their abuse? Can it ever erase what happened? If so, are we living in a society where murder is justified depending on the crime?
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