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Movie Review: Of Mice and Men (1992) – Just Playing With the Bunnies

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Set in California during the Depression, Of Mice and Men follows two young men, George (Gary Sinise) and Lennie (John Malkovich), who are living the rootless, migratory life of day labourers. It quickly becomes obvious that Lennie isn’t all the way there, but he is strong as an ox. That is actually part of the problem. We start in medias res with George and Lennie running from a posse, something that is explained later.

The gentle giant Lennie has a soft spot for animals. The only problem is that he loves them a little too much, squeezing the life out of the things he pets. The viewer quickly understands that Lennie really does mean no harm, he just does not understand how strong he really is and he doesn’t seem to be able to learn. George takes care of Lennie as they travel together, but the relationship is not an uncomplicated one. All the tension and apprehension between the two is played beautifully by Sinise and Malkovich.

Lennie is obviously mentally still a child in some ways. The communication between him and George has a recurring refrain, something you have the feeling George has said a thousand times. It is mainly a plan for a better life for the two of them, where they will settle down on a little farm with cows and pigs and rabbits. The rabbits are particularly important to Lennie who chimes in that he will “tend the rabbits”.

The farm where George and Lennie end up working is peopled with about as many quirky characters as you would expect from any movie based on a Steinbeck novel. There’s the short and even more short-tempered Curley (Casey Siemaszko) and his bombshell of a wife (Sherilyn Fenn), the old farmhand Candy (Ray Walston), Slim (John Terry), who acts as a kind of voice of reason, and the old bent and broken Crooks (Joe Morton).

There is a very basic quality to the telling of this particular story. It relies heavily on the actors’ ability to convey much of what is left between the lines, and I personally think it is never entirely fair to compare the movie to the book anyway. Movies are collective efforts where cinematography and characterization are subject to interpretation and some things are elided by necessity. Sinise does a good job directing and starring, something that has always seemed a difficult thing to pull off to me, whereas it carries with it the temptation of letting the movie become a vehicle for one actor only. To my mind there is none of that going on here, even though there is obvious care taken to make sure that the actors are given room to work. It is also beautifully shot.

Coming into this story we already know it can’t end well. It’s just a matter of knowing how bad things will get before we get to the inevitable. Curley’s wife (Sherilyn Fenn) is the siren here, coming into the bunkhouse and getting the workers into trouble in various ways. Curley is possessive and jealous and abusive and there is never any doubt that his wife is unhappy with the situation, lonely and bored and locked into a life she does not really want. She winds up trying to befriend Lennie, and that is where things turn dark and desperate. Lennie just does what he always does, petting the bunnies until they break and it is done without any real malice. He breaks Curley’s wife’s neck without really meaning any harm. George knows that this is the end and there’s nothing he can do for Lennie now, except make sure he does not wind up in a cage.

Tragedy always hits harder when preceded by hope for the future and circumstance outside the lead characters’ control. We know this story well enough that there is no real surprise at the way things will end, but the actors make the journey well worth the time. Malkovich, who we are more used to seeing as a cerebral cool villain, really knocks this one out of the park. And Sinise understates all his reactions so well that it is kind of fascinating to watch. Sherilyn Fenn is drop-dead gorgeous and plays this well enough to elevate something that could have been a bad cartoon cliché.

It’s not the book, but it is far too well executed to be dismissed despite the fact that you probably have your own images and ideas even as you step into the vision Sinise creates with a great and obvious love for the material. In short, well worth watching.

Of Mice and Men (1992) is based on the Steinbeck novel of the same name. Horton Foote has written the screenplay and this version is directed by Gary Sinise, who also stars as George Milton. The rest of the cast consists of John Malkovich (Lennie Small), Sherilyn Fenn (Curley’s wife), Casey Siemaszko (Curley), Ray Walstone (Candy), John Terry (Slim), Richard Riehle (Carlson), Alexis Arquette (Whitt), Joe Morton(Crooks), Noble Willingham (The Boss), Joe D’Angerio (Jack), Tuck Milligan (Mike) and David Steen (Tom).

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