John Curran's Stone (113 screens) opened early in October in limited release, undoubtedly with a plan to roll it out to more theaters as Oscar buzz built. Unfortunately, critics did not nibble -- it has a 49% on Rotten Tomatoes -- and it looks as if no such buzz will be coming. I found the film rich and fascinating with many layers of ideas worth unpacking. But looking at some of the negative comments, it appears that most critics got stuck during the film's first ten minutes and never recovered.
That ten minutes can be crucial to a film. The director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In America, etc.) once told me something fascinating that I try to remember each time I sit down to a film. He said that audiences (critics included) tend to judge an entire film based on things they hear during the first reel. Not see, but hear. For example, if a character mentions that it's cold outside, people might call the film "chilly." I think Stone stumbles a bit out of the starting gate. When Edward Norton first appears, with cornrows and a tough-guy dialect, he appears suddenly, as if opening up a stage play. Thus, some critics complain of stagy and over-studied acting, even though the performances tend to smooth out over the course of the film.
Likewise, critics complain that the film is muddled, both in its story and in its themes. Again, the movie doesn't really establish these things in its first few minutes. We get a glimpse of Robert De Niro as parole officer Jack Mabry arriving at work; we see that he has a gun. We meet Stone (Norton) after many years in prison, and he has a tough exterior. He mainly talks about sex with his wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), but the themes about religion and its connection to sex and violence are not really discussed in the first few minutes.
Later in the film, Stone realizes that he needs something to keep him going in prison, and we see him searching for some kind of religion; we see him choosing one, and then learning how to use it. He learns how to listen and hear "the voice of God" (more or less) in all the little sounds of the world. On the other hand, Jack's actual job is to listen, and he doesn't, or can't. He doesn't listen to Stone, he doesn't listen to his wife, and he doesn't appear to be listening to the religious talk show that plays on his car radio several times during the course of the film. He can't listen in church, either, and when he goes to his priest with his problem, not even his priest seems to listen.
It's true: many religions are about talking and trying to convince, rather than listening. Thus, Jack easily succumbs to both sex and violence over the course of the film. Stone is no saint either, he's an alleged firebug, but he loves the beauty -- the spiritual quality -- of a fire. He takes some time to enjoy it. I'm not saying that all these themes perfectly snap together to form some kind of conclusion, but I like that they're there, that the film tries. Perhaps if the film had eliminated Stone's journey and established the two men as equal-but-opposite during those opening minutes, it would have been easier for people to handle.
As for awards season, it's too bad. Director John Curran (We Don't Live Here Anymore, The Painted Veil) is turning into a smart, subtle director whose handling of fairly traditional material usually includes some surprising new dimension. But the real surprise here isn't Curran, or even De Niro or Norton, but Jovovich, who turns in a real knockout performance, easily the equal of her more celebrated co-stars. Her Lucetta is an airhead, but a fully-rounded one, completely in touch with her identity and one or two steps ahead of everyone. (Check out the scene with the eggs! I wonder what those could symbolize?) I would have loved to see Jovovich sneak in and get an Oscar nomination, but it's a bit too late. Stone has already gone cold.