Of Mice and Men," John Steinbeck's enduring fable of human caring on the bottom of the social pyramid, is so simple and rugged almost nothing can go wrong with it. And almost nothing does in the new film version with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise, directed by Sinese.
Sinise keeps the texture parable-simple and the performances unfettered and non-neurotic. In fact, in many ways, this version of the story could have easily appeared in 1942, when the Lon Chaney-Burgess Meredith version saw light of day -- it's not revisionist at all, it's reverential.
George and Lennie are the two vagabond sprites of American literature: bindlestiffs (as hobos were called before they were called hobos), they roam rural Depression-haunted California looking for three hots and a cot in exchange for a hard day's work. In their alienation, they've become a nation unto themselves, an altruistic relationship imagined sentimentally by Steinbeck and amplified by Sinise. They are, moreover, spiritually sustained by their own private mythology. In this dream, they'll have a little place, a demi-Eden where a garden will feed them and nobody will hassle them. And Lennie will have his rabbits, which he likes to stroke, until he kills them.
Lennie, big as an ox and friendly as a pup, still has a child's literal mind locked in his hulking body. He doesn't "get" cause and effect; he's a sweet bomb waiting to go off, and one strength of the original story and this version is that nobody wastes time developing a complex victim's rationale for Lennie; he's just a gentle, dopey killer whose tender impulses and buried sexual longings are entwined. He needs desperately to be institutionalized, but then, as now, the state wasn't capable of such a thing.
Malkovich is brilliant in this role. I've seen him in all his movies RTC and even interviewed him, and no sense of size has ever attended his presence; but somehow he acts huge in the film and the camera registers that bulk impressively. But equally impressive is his subtle sense of Lennie's retardation; the opportunity to milk Lennie's childishness is a bon-bon a lesser actor might have chomped on endlessly. Malkovich reduces the affliction almost to minimalism: a slight singsonginess to his voice, a slack look as his minuscule attention drifts to the horizon, the edgy panic that takes over every time he dimly perceives he's done something wrong.
Sinise casts himself in the far less showy role of earnest, caring George. But in his way too, he's extremely effective -- and of course it helps enormously that he and Malkovich know each other well from Chicago days in the Steppenwolf Theater Group, which Sinise founded at 17. His George is wiry, a tough wild boy of the road who seems to have stepped out of a Walker Evans photograph. There's something completely self-effacing in the performance: it's pared down, resonant, tight as a drum. Why does George care for Lennie so much, especially as Lennie is always getting them in trouble? Sinise, either as director or actor, has no theories. He simply accepts the Steinbeck precept of George's innate nobility of nature, a simple gift from God.
The story progresses neatly, buttressed by a solidly carpentered three-act structure, the proper rise and fall of plot, the careful moderation of nuance and character (Steinbeck was nothing if not a pro.) George and Lennie take up work on a Northern California ranch; they fit in well with the boys but Lennie's peculiarity of temperment somehow excites the hormonal hostility in Curly (Casey Siemaszko), the owner's son. He attacks Lennie and for his efforts is pulped mightily by the behemoth.
The tragic figure in all this is Curley's wife, a frustrated beauty who's treated like property by her husband. It's not much of a role (she doesn't even have a name!), but Sherilyn Fenn makes the young woman's need palpable and pathetic and her misunderstanding of Lennie's nature tragic.
The movie builds a neat chain of frustration that slides downhill, character to character, until at last it nests upon and destroys poor Lennie. Because Curly is a brute, he's mean to his wife; because she's brutalized, she seeks attention; because he's lonely, she talks to Lennie; because Lennie's simple, he misinterprets her affections; because he's afraid he'll get caught when she screams, he holds her too tightly; because she's human, she dies. So fragile is the linkage that you think, it didn't have to happen. On the other hand, given the characters, it did have to happen.
George's last act of friendship is to administer the touch of mercy that Lennie so desperately needs. Sinise the director doesn't betray Sinise and Malkovich the actors. That last famous scene is played so matter of factly it's over almost before it starts. The movie has the homespun, resonant intensity of a major work. It's wonderful and sad, every bit of it.
'Of Mice and Men'
Starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinise.
Directed by Gary Sinise.
Released by MGM.