The bulk of Stone, the film, is as much a mystery as the mysteries people of faith are challenged with from time to time. Presented in some respect as a lingering con game and equally meditative on man's connection to commit evil deeds, Stone is never what you are expecting it to be while watching it, though it is profoundly seriously about the issues it raises. Instead of a thriller, we're presented with a character study of two men of intersecting beliefs with women whose earthly pleasures in this life directly correlate to what they think might happen in the next. Nearly suffering a mid-life crisis of its own midway through as it sulks itself deeper into material some may describe as Bresson-ian, it never has a crisis of faith and allows three very interesting performances to come shining through the center and plenty to ponder in the end.
Robert DeNiro is Jack Mabry, a prison psychologist in a 43-year marriage to the long-suffering Madylyn (Frances Conroy) - one step removed from being Allison Janney's catatonic mate in American Beauty - who reads her Bible while allowing her husband his daily vices of drink and golf. On the verge of retirement, Jack gets a new case in Gerald Creeson, or "Stone" (Edward Norton) as he prefers to be called. Convicted as an accessory to arson and murdering his grandparents, Gerald is stand-offish about his chances for parole, saying out loud anything that can already be read in his file. There's no sign that Jack cares for this young man one way or another but he'll be damned if he's going to let him dictate how he's going to do his job in these final days.
In their talks, Stone mentions his primary reason for getting freedom and that is his wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich). He describes her as being from another world, mostly in the sexual realm, but is not just passing along extreme fancies. Gerald means to entice Jack for an eventual meeting that he has Lucetta eagerly trying to set up on the outside. Continually calling his home and showing up unexpectedly, Jack is not having any of it and appears on to their game. Repression and aggression cannot be sustained forever, though, and as Jack unprofessionally converses with the convict's wife, the convict himself begins to discover spirituality from a book or two as each see their priorities shift in unexpected terms.
The path that Stone leads and the very one that may entice you into the theater follows the promise that it may be another twisty mystery where not everything is as it seems. That is certainly an understatement that Stone can live up to since it is anything but. Where the film may actually stray from its more fascinating path is in allowing the audience to believe that definitive answers to their questions are coming. What would a film about the nature of sin and its judgment be though with such concrete resolutions?
Angus MacLachlan's screenplay, in opposition to the ways of understanding love in his last script, Junebug, confronts the middle ground of evil. Just where does the line begin in the eyes of the wicked and to those that castigate their actions? Gerald loses a decade of his life for being in the vicinity of a double murder and then covering it up. It is when he finally sees blood spilled before his eyes that he is sparked towards a life of wanting to understand his purpose here. Is Jack's evaluation of Gerald or any prisoner in any way tainted by his own misgivings as a human being? A shocking opening prologue does not exactly endear us to Jack. Because we are witness to it with a lot of blanks left to be filled, we are less forgiving to any sort of redemption in store for him while the tide begins to shift on Gerald and his newfound insights into the human condition. Unless, of course, it is just one big con as well.
The truth certainly lies in the three performances that force each actor to practically become different people in every scene due to our perception of them. Norton, no stranger to the effect of prison on characters (Primal Fear, American History X), opens with such a complete original that it's a shame when the story neuters him midway through his religious rebirth. It's a testament to Norton, though, that we can accept that rebirth as genuine where so many other films would choose to keep us on edge as to his sincerity.
It was nice to see DeNiro try to create a center for Everybody's Fine last year. It is doubly interesting to see him not just show up for any 'ol script that winds up on his doorstep these days and attempt to externalize a character with some real demons again. Just exerting his authority over Gerald as he tries to walk out of his office is more genuine passion than we have seen from one of the greats in a while. And yet who would ever imagine the day when DeNiro would be upstaged by Milla Jovovich?
Certainly one of the luckiest actresses thanks to the semi-successful Resident Evil franchise and a couple of convenient marriages, Jovovich has never earned much praise aside from being an object of beauty. In Stone she easily delivers her best performance since her little-seen turn opposite Adrien Brody in the ventriloquist comedy, Dummy. Lucetta is a very tricky character. Aside from confirming our fantasies that our attractive grade school teachers were really freaks at home, Lucetta is a lost little girl who is nevertheless in control of her desires. The way she manipulates Jack over the phone by shifting to whispery tones is sexier than any photo spread Jovovich has ever participated in and is a lynchpin moment for a performance we have to watch very carefully.
John Curran's work on We Don't Live Here Anymore and The Painted Veil has been rather uninspiring, bordering on the tedious. With Stone he has found a script where the overriding ideas trump the pacing and the unpleasantness of its characters. Many may centralize their focus on the showdown between DeNiro and Norton, picking up where they left off as adversaries in 2001's The Score, but the women play just as important a part as opposites. Each with their unwavering views of God are a crucial influence not just in their own behavior but for their significant others to eventually rebel against. And a capper scene between mother and daughter is a notable bookend to answering many of the questions about Jack's involvement as a husband and father in the decades we do not see.
Stone is thrilling for what we're left to ponder afterwards more than any suspense inherit in the interaction during it. The occasional misleading music suggests we might be headed for a powder keg third act where justice and tragedy coalesce. There are answers to be found in Stone, but they may be within our own beliefs and prejudices.