Stone *** ½
Directed by: John Curran.
Written By: Angus MacLachlan.
Starring: Robert De Niro (Jack), Edward Norton (Stone), Milla Jovovich (Lucetta), Frances Conroy (Madylyn), Enver Gjokaj (Young Jack), Pepper Binkley (Young Madylyn), Sandra Love Aldridge (Miss Dickerson), Greg Trzaskoma (Guard Peters), Rachel Loiselle (Candace), Peter Lewis (Warden), Sarab Kamoo (Janice).
Stone is an intricate moral puzzle of a movie in which everyone is guilty of something. Each scene in the film changes the moral playing field somewhat, and I was left changing my mind about the characters throughout. If not handled properly, a film like this is likely to go off the rails, and become a mere exercise in screenwriting. But what makes Stone as good as it is the performances by a great cast, that make the characters feel real, even when they are mere pawns in the screenwriters game. They add weight to the movie.
The film stars Robert DeNiro in his best performance in more than a decade (that isn’t saying very much, as DeNiro has pretty much coasted in the past 10 years, with the exception of his great directorial effort The Good Sheperd) as Jack, a man on the verge of retirement from his job at a prison. He meets with convicts who are coming up from parole soon, and writes a report to the board to let them know what he thinks. He is coasting through his last few weeks, when he meets Stone (Edward Norton) – a con with a nasally voice and cornrows, in jail for accessory to the murder of his grandparents. Jack is initially unimpressed with Stone, and his obvious attempts to get under his skin. But as things progress, and he continues to meet with Stone – and then Stone’s wife Lucetta (Milla Jovovich) starts seeing Jack, with the obvious intention of seducing him to help get her husband free, Jack’s life begins to spiral. We already know that Jack has a dark, violent side to him – the opening scene is a flashback where his wife (Frances Conroy) threatens to walk out on him and take their daughter, and Jack snaps. Now, years later, Jack seems to be keeping that rage bottled up – and his wife has become a shell of woman, drinking constantly, and scared to step out of line. Stone and Luceta bring that darkness back.
What I admired about Stone is that it does not take the most obvious route to get where it’s going. Perhaps it’s because it’s Robert DeNiro, who we have seen explode into violence in films like Taxi Driver, or perhaps because of that opening scene, but we expect Jack to explode, to lash out violently at Stone or Luceta or his wife, but he never really does. Instead, he implodes on himself, his buried rage coming to the surface, but instead of lashing out, he impotently does nothing. DeNiro, always a masterful actor when he wants to be, makes Jack into both a character to hate and one to pity – he is a man who hates the situation he’s in, yet can think of nothing to do to get out it. It truly is a great performance.
The rest of the cast is fine as well. Edward Norton may have the title role, but it really is a supporting one. He is constantly playing everyone. With that strange voice, that makes him kind of sound like Terence Howard in Hustle and Flow, and those ridiculous cornrows, it is easy to laugh at Stone at the beginning – and I think that’s just what he wants Jack to do. But gradually, he starts turning the screws, not just on Jack, but on Luceta as well. He is a sociopath is capable of lying without remorse or feeling. When he finds religion, we’re not sure of what to make of it – he seems genuine – but I was struck late in the film by a comment about a stone that Frances Conroy made in the pamphlet that apparently led to Stone’s religious conversion – well after we have been introduced to him, and he says he prefers to be called Stone, and not Gerald. Coincidence? I think not. Norton is an actor whose reputation for being difficult may have cost him some great roles, but he still among the best actors working today when he gets a good one, and this is one of his best.
Not to be outdone, the women in the movie are also excellent – and completely opposite of each other. I have never thought much of Milla Jovovich, who has spent most of her career doing C level action movies, and the last time I remember her in a serious role was The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, where she had the lead and was horrible in it. But here, she is truly a revelation. Her eyes are huge, her voice soft and quiet in the kind of sexy, seductive voice of a teenage girl who doesn’t really know what she’s doing. She struck me as a big kid, easily manipulated, and also gifted at manipulating. She has a femme fatale role here, and she delivers a complex performance that hits all the right notes. It is impossible not to feel sorry for her, even as she deliberately screws with Jack’s life. Frances Conroy is also great – just as she was for all those years on Six Feet Under. She is so quiet in the early going of the film, that she almost feels like a non-entity – a character there only for the convenience of the plot. But as the movie progresses although she does not get much more forceful, we start to see her as a whole person – or as whole as she can be given her life – and she has several great moments where she lets Jack know that she knows what is going on, who he is, and that she is no longer going to pretend. It is a great, quiet performance.
I’m not going to say that Stone is a movie without flaws – it has quite a few. Despite the great performances, which elevate the material well beyond where it probably should be – the film does at times feel like a screenwriter’s invention, more than an organically unfolding plot. And the direction by John Curran (We Don’t Live Here Anymore and The Painted Veil) is at times a little too overwrought (the sex scenes are a good example of this). I also kind of wish that the opening scene, that shows us from the get go that Jack is has a violent streak, had been moved to the end – or cut altogether and we had been allowed to discover this more organically in the film. Ultimately perhaps Stone is more interesting movie to dissect than it is to watch. And yet, I didn’t mind these flaws. Stone engaged me intellectually from the start, and the performances kept me interested throughout. A great movie it isn’t, but there are so few movies that are this interesting, that the distinction is hardly worth making.