We are all aware of the abuse (sexual and physical) of young children in the care of the system. There has been book after book written about it and film after film made. Not to diminish the subject in any way, but when you decide to make yet another film based on a reputedly true story from a novel by author Lorenzo Carcaterra you have to bring something new to the whole thing. If you are just showing that it happened and that young people suffered (most of the time in silence) then not to be harsh or anything, it begins to wreak of “been there-done that”. If you don’t bring something new to the table then it tends to fall into the ever growing pile of Vietnam or Holocaust films. All subjects that have been strip mined for novels and films.
Barry Levinson’s (Wag the Dog, Bugsy) adaptation and direction of Carcaterra’s novel obviously was meant to make a big splash. It has a big cast (Jason Patric, Billy Crudup, Robert De Niro, Minnie Driver, Brad Pitt, Dustin Hoffman, and John Slattery) that caught our attention. Anytime you can get Hoffman, De Niro and Pitt in the same film lots of film fans will be on board. It has the splashy story. It has the big name director.
Four boys, Michael Reilly (Brad Renfro – The Client, Apt Pupil), John Reilly (Geoffrey Wigdor – from televisions The Guiding Light and One Life to Live), Tommy Marcano (Jonathan Tucker – The Ruins, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – 2003), and Lorenzo Carcaterra (Joseph Perrino – The Mighty, Assassination of a High School President) nicknamed “Shakes”, were growing up in the tough area of New York City called Hell’s Kitchen. Their home lives are a mess. Broken homes and beatings are what these young kids have to deal with. To escape a little they all become altar boys under Father Bobby (Robert De Niro – Heat, Taxi Driver). An ex-con himself, he tries to keep them on the straight and narrow.
A prank that they do gets carried away and a man ends up getting hurt. The four are sentenced to do no less than a year at upstate New York’s Wilkenson Home for Boys. Shakes gets only 6 months because he was judged to be less involved than the others.
Stuck in a place with young criminals who have done much more serious crimes than they are targeted for beatings and teasings from the beginning. To make matters even worse they are subjected to humiliations, beatings and other horrors by the very guards who are supposed to be looking after them and their safety. The worse is Sean Nokes (Kevin Bacon – Footloose, ) and his sidekicks, Ralph Ferguson (Terry Kinney – The Firm, The Last of the Mohicans), Adam Styler (Lennie Loftin – L.A. Confidential, Se7en), and Henry Addison (Jeffrey Donovan – from television’s Burn Notice). The abuse becomes a nightly occurrence. Inside Wilkenson, the boys change and not for the better. They refuse to allow their families to visit and even beg Father Bobby to stay away.
Now men, Shakes (Jason Patric – The Lost Boys, Speed 2) is a journalist and Michael (Brad Pitt – Moneyball, Inglorious Basterds) is an assistant district attourney. Michael tells Shakes that he is going to take the Sean Nokes murder case. Tommy (Billy Crudup – Almost Famous, Watchmen) and John (Ron Eldard – from television’s ER), two notorious criminals, are the men accused of his murder. Thirteen years after getting released there is a chance for them to seek some revenge against those who abused them so long ago and expose the Wilkenson Home for Boys for what it was.
Each time you watch this film it will break your heart. You feel what these boys went through and suffer along with them. It can be watched multiple times even though you know what is going to be the end result. If you have not watch it you will be mesmerized by the continuous surprises the film has in store for you.
Several issues are brought up for debate by the film. The most obvious and interesting is whether a revenge killing is justified. You can look at it from many angles, but there really is no real answer and that is the “fun” of it. It is also not an easy film in that there are no simple or clear cut answers. You will often feel divided or unsure of how to feel.
Whether or not this is based on actual events like the author claims (it has been disputed), it is still a good story, brings some new stuff to the table and a heartbreaking watch.