Before disappearing into the bottomless depths of a successful CSI spin-off, Gary Sinise was a reliably sturdy actor who brought a sense of down-to-earth credibility to nearly everything he appeared in. His work is typically straightforward and unfussy, which sometimes makes him less immediately memorable than his co-stars but just as often allows him to stand out (his quietly dignified performance is arguably the best thing about the too-drippy Forrest Gump). Sinise worked behind the camera on a few different occasions in the early days of his career, and his John Steinbeck adaptation Of Mice and Men – the last feature he's helmed to date – may be the purest showcase of his particular talents. Like Steinbeck's novella, the film is spare, tender, honest and human.
George (Sinise) and Lenny (John Malkovich, Burn After Reading) are Depression-era workmen who have known each other since childhood. Lenny is physically strong but mentally disabled, so George has begrudgingly appointed himself as Lenny's personal guardian. They had found respectable work on a farm in Weed, California, but are forced to flee after Lenny is accused of attempted rape (he's the sweetest guy in the world, but has an unfortunate tendency to roughly grab anything – or anyone – that catches his eye). After a brief period of traveling and hiding out, George and Lenny find new employment on a farm in Soledad.
Though Of Mice and Men is perhaps best-known for its dramatic, heartbreaking conclusion, it isn't really a plot-driven tale. The vast majority of Sinise's film is a gentle, low-key character study that observes the complicated relationship between George and Lenny as they dream about the future, ruminate on the past and try to make do with the difficult-but-manageable circumstances of the present.
George loves Lenny like a brother, but he feels a certain measure of bitterness towards his travel companion. He often speaks aloud about how much easier his life would be if he didn't have to think about Lenny's well-being. “I could go into town on the weekend and buy whatever I want... stay in a cathouse,” he sighs. Lenny never quite seems to understand precisely what George is so frustrated about, but he doesn't like seeing George upset. The moments when Lenny attempts to comfort George feel very much like scenes of a young child attempting to comfort a frustrated parent: simple-minded, but touchingly sincere.
Lenny isn't the sort of role one usually associates with Malkovich (who has often specialized in playing aloof, calculating intellectuals), but it ranks among his loveliest performances (Sinise reportedly refused to even consider anyone else). It's so easy for parts like this to turn into cheap, awards-friendly stunts, but Malkovich so perfectly inhabits the character from the very beginning – his alternately blank and exuberant face, his slurred voice, his bewildered eyes – that you lose sight of the actor almost immediately. Sinise does similarly strong work as George, fully capturing the character's basic decency and bitter frustration. The two actors had worked together as charter members of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company during their early days, which almost certainly played a role in helping them create a relationship that feels lived-in right off the bat.
Still, the film isn't a two-hander: it's is loaded with well-drawn supporting characters who bring different shades of warmth and tension to the story. There aren't any conventional villains here, but the man who comes closest is Curly (Casey Siemaszko, Back to the Future), the boss' hot-tempered son who has a tendency to make trouble. Curly's wife (Sherilyn Fenn, Twin Peaks) is also a trouble-maker, flirting with assorted farm hands (including George and Lenny) right under Curly's nose. George and Lenny's best friend on the farm is Candy (Ray Walston, The Sting), a old one-handed ranch-hand who fears that he may have outlived his usefulness. George, Lenny and Candy are very different people, but they're united by a desire to create a better life for themselves somewhere else. They dream of starting a ranch where they can be their own bosses and live in peace (though Lenny mostly dreams of tending to the rabbits).
Like a lot of actor/directors, Sinise's strengths as a director are largely in the realm of performance and characterization. On a visual level, the film never really manages to feel like anything more than a good-looking HBO movie, though the sun-baked cinematography and attractive locations at least manage to establish an effective sense of place. It could also be argued that the film needs a greater sense of urgency; that the overwhelming grip of the Great Depression isn't as palpable as it ought to be. Still, the film is largely a stellar interpretation of one of Steinbeck's great works, and the George and Lenny it gives us are rich and beautifully-drawn. Here's hoping Sinise hops into the director's chair again someday.
Of Mice and Men
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 115 minutes
Release Year: 1992