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Gary Sinise’s Of Mice and Men: An Appreciation

Gary Sinise in Of Mice and Men

One of the great filmmaking misconceptions familiar to anyone who’s ever read a screenwriting manual (or spent time with low-level Hollywood development executives) is the notion that movies are external and books are internal — that the advantage that literature has over cinema is that it can tell us what people are thinking. This canard that movies aren’t good at conveying characters’ thoughts has endured in spite of how easily disproven it is. Even a casual study of Bergman or Ozu, or more recently Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, confirms the exact opposite truth: that depicting characters’ interior lives is one of the things movies are best at, and that some of the finest films ever made capitalize on this fact. Gary Sinise knows this, and he knew it from the beginning. His first feature film as director, Miles From Home (1988), is a master class in visually expressing complex emotions — for exhibit A, just look at the scene in which young lovers Kevin Anderson and Penelope Ann Miller meet. The looks and gestures exchanged between the two, and the way they’re cut and framed by Sinise, turn the cliché of love at first sight into an organic, wholly authentic moment of immense power and resonance.

It’s a great scene in a great movie, but Sinise was just getting warmed up — his second (and to date last) film as director, an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1992), is even better, and is now ripe for rediscovery courtesy of a gorgeous Blu-ray released by Olive Films. Like Miles From Home — and like the John Ford and Jerry Schatzberg films that appear to have influenced it — it’s unadorned and straightforward yet infinite in its revelations. And like the Bergman and Ozu movies referenced in the first paragraph, it invents a precise and poetic visual language to communicate its characters’ inner turmoil, often underlining that turmoil by placing it within placid, even stunning settings. The hopelessness of its migrant workers’ lives is all the more affecting given the backdrop that surrounds them — they’re engulfed in plentiful resources and beautiful landscapes, but they can never truly partake of the resources they’re employed to exploit.

Yet this is not a depressing or dispiriting film, because the supremacy of Sinise’s craft and the expansiveness of his world view elevate the material to transcendent heights; it’s about loneliness, yet its deep understanding of that condition paradoxically makes the viewer feel less alone than many more conventionally “uplifting” films. The movie stands alongside Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy as one of the great American films about alienation, and as in Midnight Cowboy the sense of alienation is all the more profound for existing in a story that focuses on two characters rather than one. Here, the two characters are Lenny (John Malkovich), who is separated from the world by his mental disability, and George (Sinise), Lenny’s friend and caretaker, whose life is driven not by his own needs or desires but by his crushing responsibility to Lenny. Although both men have each other and are often in the company of fellow migrant workers, their isolation is pervasive — and the woman who offers both men a chance at connection, the restless wife of their boss’s son (Sherilyn Fenn), ends up precipitating their downfall.             

Sinise has recounted seeing a stage production of Of Mice and Men when he was young, and he and Malkovich played their parts at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre long before reprising them on screen. The years of thinking about Steinbeck’s text and its characters manifest themselves in every moment of Of Mice and Men, starting with a striking credit sequence that takes place in the boxcar George and Lenny ride to a new town. Visually, it’s a metaphor for the film as a whole: the world can be intermittently spotted through narrow slats in the train walls, but never fully controlled or taken in as a whole — life mercilessly passes these characters by. The tension between the expanding world in which George and Lenny live and their own constantly constricting existence is immediately and forcefully established, and the unique blend of beauty (Kenneth MacMillan’s lighting is exquisite here, as it is throughout the film) and emotional unease prepares the viewer for what is to follow. Sinise repeats the imagery in the film’s climactic scene, when Lenny encounters Fenn’s character in a barn; again the light through the slats appears, at the moment when Lenny is both doomed and gets a brief, incomplete glimpse of intimacy. Interestingly, when the film ends on George back on a train, the slats are gone — there’s not even the fantasy of an outside world for respite, just our protagonist alone, surrounded by darkness.       

The use of light to exacerbate isolation is a constant in Of Mice and Men, as Sinise encircles his characters with shadows to separate them from each other and the landscape; he’s also deft at using blocking and editing to subliminally let the viewer know when characters are most alienated from each other. The frequent shots in which characters are either alone or occupy different planes of action pay off in the rare moments that deviate from that approach; again, the climactic scene between Lenny and the boss’s daughter-in-law stands out, as Sinise employs a gliding camera to unify them in the frame — just before they brutally come apart. Sinise uses the idea of isolation in other ways too, particularly when it comes to guiding the viewer’s eye and ear to what’s truly important without becoming overly manipulative. In a key scene involving the shooting of a dog, for example, Sinise presents several layers of action and dialogue, yet the audience is most aware of a man loading a gun in the background; in a subsequent scene, the emphasis shifts to the character whose dog was killed, even though he shares the screen with a half-dozen or so other characters.

This is all done through careful lens selection, lighting (again, shadows obscure less important elements in the composition), and subtle shifts in the sound mix, all of which lend weight to the shooter’s actions without disregarding the perspectives of other characters in the scene. It’s an aesthetic approach that makes an implicit moral statement; throughout the movie, Sinise is focused yet generous in his point of view, implying that each of these characters is fully worthy of our respect and attention, whether or not they are the center of any given scene or significant in the plot as a whole. The movie’s unadorned classical style plays a large part here, as Sinise shows a fair amount of restraint in both his cutting and his use of close-ups; he favors medium and medium-long shots that contextualize the characters in their environment and with each other, allowing us to fully absorb the nature of their daily existence. It’s the perfect visual corollary for what Steinbeck achieves in literary terms.

The adaptation by screenwriter Horton Foote is truly impressive in this sense, as he keeps everything that works for the screen, throws out what doesn’t, and provides new material that broadens our perception of Steinbeck’s novel without betraying its intent. Although the book is filled with strong dialogue that could theoretically be transposed to the screen with little alteration, Sinise and Foote, while preserving a lot of it, cut a lot of it too – Sinise is unerring in his instinct for when a long passage can be replaced by a simple cut to a reaction shot, or a camera move that shifts emphasis and power from one character to another. The result is a kind of narrative economy that actually improves upon Steinbeck’s masterpiece; the film version of Of Mice and Men says everything the novel was saying and taps into the same emotions, but it distills them into a more direct, potent form of delivery. The excisions also make room for perhaps Sinise and Foote’s most fruitful improvement on Steinbeck’s text, which is their characterization of the boss’s daughter-in-law. In the novel, she’s essentially a manipulative tramp, but Sinise, Foote, and Fenn grant her a greater degree of dignity and intent, adding material that presents her as a lonely woman looking for meaning and connection just as the male characters are. The effect of this change on the overall narrative goes further than to make Steinbeck’s story less misogynistic; it also makes the whole thing more poignant, deepening the sense of loss to an almost unbearable level.

The upshot is the kind of movie that can only result when a director has his hands firmly on the controls at every moment, calibrating image, sound and performance with a precision that implies a weighty intelligence at work behind every shot. Yet the result of all this work is a purity of expression that’s clean, clear, and unforced — often Sinise seems to be doing the least when he’s doing the most. This extends to his performing style as well as his direction; as both an actor and director he has the confidence not to force his effects, and he’s often at his most restrained in scenes — like the heartbreaking final one between George and Lenny — that would have other actors emoting to the rafters. The subtlety of Sinise’s final moments, in which his face registers sadness, guilt, resignation, and relief all at once, yields one of the most miraculous pieces of screen acting that I’ve ever seen. That it doesn’t even stand out alongside all the other small miracles of Of Mice and Men is a testament to the majesty of the whole, and to the commitment and talent of the man both behind and in front of the camera.             

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD, iTunes, and Amazon Prime. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.

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