The Hollywood studio system, almost by its very nature, tends to stifle
and suppress the urge for big screen rumination. In action and horror
films, of course, there’s hardly any precious time for reflection, but
even outside of the lucrative genre realm rarely is there a mainstream
American movie where emotional fumbling or a lack of certitude seems to
define all of the main characters. Audiences desire more rigidly defined
journeys, and don’t want to see the inherent unsettledness of life,
Directed by John Curran, from a script by Angus
MacLachlan, Stone quietly challenges some of those assumptions. It’s not
wildly esoteric or steeped in unrecognizable metaphor, but Stone is a
film largely (though not entirely) devoid of typical dramatic markers
and signposts. Starring Robert De Niro and Edward Norton, it’s a meditative work about people awash in latent unhappiness, coming up from the mud, and slowly pawing their way to a place where they might (but just as likely might not) be able to get out of it.
Moral crisis, and the flickering possibility of awakening, is at the center of Stone. The film unfolds on the economically depressed outskirts of Detroit, where parole officer Jack Mabry (De Niro), a hard-drinking, introverted Episcopalean, is counting down the days to retirement, which will put him at home more and exacerbate tensions with his long-suffering wife Madylyn (Frances Conroy). Reviewing the case of Gerald “Stone” Creeson (Norton), a cornrowed ex-addict who’s already put in eight years out of a 10- to 15-year sentence for setting a fire to cover up the murder of his grandparents, Jack finds himself on the receiving end of, alternately, flattery and spiteful rage and negativity. Stone needs to convince Jack that he’s remorseful and reformed, but seems caught somewhere in between a sincere, be-what-may roll of the dice and darker impulses.
Part of that negative energy involves Stone’s seemingly devoted wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich). In the beginning, they seem to have about as healthy a relationship as one can imagine for a couple physically separated for so long, but as the date for Stone’s hearing draws closer, fissures and tears develop. Outwardly, Madylyn and Lucetta seem to have little in common, the former having channeled her marital frustrations into religion, and the latter characterized by a sunny proactivity and sexual frankness. Both, however, are women that have suffered the sins of the men in their lives, albeit in radically different fashions. It’s here, as Lucetta flirts with and then makes a special proposition to Jack, that the film flirts heaviest with convention — another story of a married man succumbing to sexual temptation. But, even as boundaries are irrevocably crossed, Stone does not content itself with charting expected waters.
Curran has put swallowed domestic misery under the microscope before — both in We Don’t Live Here Anymore and The Painted Veil, the latter on which he teamed with Norton — and here he’s again fascinated with the varying impulses of man, especially when they awaken to the fact that there’s no longer any shared beliefs or purpose tethering them to their loved ones. What is love without commonality, in other words? This deeper psychological investment in action is paramount to Stone‘s adult appeal.
The performances here are all something special, too. For all his scholarly adroitness with book-read characters, Norton
can also breathe wonderful three-dimensionality and humanity into greaseballs and fringe-dwelling types, which he does here. Jovovich,
meanwhile, is great at conveying Lucetta’s swallowed, almost snake-y female
power. It’s different than mere sexual aggressiveness, but a cousin of the
same, and powered by an inner heat to which men respond but also frequently
kind of fear. De Niro, seemingly invigorated by material that asks more of him, also brings his A-game.
An honest appraisal of Stone cedes points for novelty of effort over execution that is solid if not always constructed for cathartic payoff. It’s a shame that the material built around Stone and the intrigue of an in-prison epiphany — is it real, feigned, or somewhere in between? — doesn’t connect more strongly. While bearing witness to a brutal shanking seems the emotional tipping point for Stone, Curran depicts the manifestations of this stirring with a gauzy indistinctness that — if true to the blissed-out, relaxed nature that sometimes flows from religious awakening — is at times a bit maddening. Admittedly, this is tough terrain, since Jack is the only person off whom Stone can bounce these changes, and their interactions are governed by a certain structure, but they feed into a feeling that quietly lingers — that at times the character of Stone has an oppositional-literary feel rather than that of a full-bodied man.
Still, these criticisms take only a bit of shine off of what is otherwise a thoughtful and bracing story of ethical compromise and moral ambiguity. It’s been a long time since the traces of French filmmaker Robert Bresson have been detected in a mainstream Hollywood work, but the ascetic, tightly focused nature of its scripting and telling mark Stone as unmistakably his progeny. It’s a slow and fairly willful psychological seduction, but Curran’s film is still a fascinating work, often times as much for what lies around the edges and in the interstices as for what actually unfolds on screen. (Overture, R, 105 minutes)