Stone is a narrative nightmare. At times it is a drama about four lives that become dissolved through interaction. Other times it feels like a thriller pitting two great actors against one another. It’s also a parable about spirituality with a what-goes-around-comes-around payoff, but not really. Stone is all of these things, but it is the indirectness within the script that undercuts the film’s impact. What could have been a simple procedural between the lawful and the lawless instead tries to be three different things at once. That’s not to say that it is a bad film, but the quality acting on display should be rewarded with a stronger narrative.
It is quite a sight to see two actors at different intervals in their careers. Robert De Niro is at a stage now where he’s a sleeping giant. For the last decade he’s been enjoying himself, doing more comedies and simple characters without much emotional depth, but there was a time when he commanded the screen. Twenty years after Goodfellas, he hasn’t been in a film as great as that one or had a performance that made people go, “He’s still got it.” With Stone, that sleeping giant has been awakened. His scenes with Edward Norton are verbal fisticuffs, going back and forth, each trying to angle for a knockout blow. The wordplay of Angus MacLachlan’s script (based on his play), allows the actors to shine in their scenes where a psychological duel is waged. Too bad its resolution is lacking.
Edward Norton should have won an Oscar by now. Though that argument could also be levied in favor for Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cary Grant, Peter O’Toole and several others. But Norton has been an enigma this past decade with his cinematic output. He worked with Spike Lee (The 25th Hour) and Ridley Scott (Kingdom of Heaven), but also starred in remakes of The Italian Job and Red Dragon (originally directed with the title Manhunter). However, the actor is hitting his stride once again with two strong performances this year (Leaves of Grass is the other one).
Norton plays Gerald “Stone” Creeson, a man who is up for parole after serving eight years of a 10-15 stretch behind bars. De Niro is Jack Mabry, a corrections officer nearing retirement after 40 years of service, who is disillusioned by his career path and his life overall. He tries to live honestly, but isn’t honest with himself or to his wife, Madylyn (Frances Conroy).
Nobody is innocent. Even those who think they are squeaky clean their moral compass has been compromised at some point. Stone plays on this concept to show that the divide between the lawful and the lawless is not always black and white.
Stone, desperate to get out of prison, enlists the help of his wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), to reach out to Jack and get his cooperation on the matter. Seeing how she uses her feminine wilds with strangers to fill the void in her life, it’s easy to see where it will lead. Jack and his wife have been in a loveless marriage for decades, so while Madylyn may be mindful of Jack’s extracurricular activities she sticks her nose in her Bible to avoid confrontation, remembering what happened the last time she raised ire.
Lucetta’s role gives the film a tinge of noir. She is the femme fatale in a story where Jack’s flaws bleed through, and where Stone’s transformation with religion may or may not be a ruse.
The religious subtext permeates the film. Its placement may have meaning, like each character’s opinions about the Almighty and one’s morality, but the message is hollow. Hearing a Christian talk radio station while Jack drives does little to advance the story. MacLachlan may have had a clear intent when he wrote those transitions, but it doesn’t lead to a substantial revelation. The film also fails to deliver as thriller despite having the characters for it.
Even though Stone ends very abruptly, and is in essence masquerading as a thriller, at least the two leads make it worth your time – but likely not in theatres. Most will find the material is not to their liking, or hate the outcome entirely. The film is not for everyone that much is true. But watching the film without heightened expectations will leave some with a greater appreciation for the acting work put forth by Edward Norton and Robert De Niro.
Director: John Curran
Notable Cast: Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Milla Jovovich, Frances Conroy
Writer(s): Angus MacLachlan, based on his play