Stone (United States, 2010)October 20, 2010
The problem with Stone, at least insofar as there is a problem, is that director John Curran (The Painted Veil) can't decide what he wants the movie to be. As with a previous script in which he had a hand, The Killer Inside Me, there are strong noir influences, but Stone is even more schizophrenic than the earlier effort. Is it intended to be an oblique and cryptic drama about a group of four characters whose life-trajectories are deflected by their interaction? Is it a thriller about the gamesmanship and conflict of wills between two powerful personalities? Or is it an allegory for a message about spiritual ambiguity and corruption? In a sense, Stone is all three, but its approach to each is so confused and tentative that it ends of succeeding as none. It's an interesting motion picture to be sure. The craftsmanship is impeccable as is the acting, but the storytelling is where the movie falls down. And with such a poorly realized narrative, it's hard to be enthusiastic about the many things Stone does right.
It is unquestionably good to see Robert De Niro once again in a straight dramatic role. The actor has appeared in so many comedies and parodies in recent years that it's easy to forget what a force of nature he can be when a script is tailored to his unique talents. De Niro is in fine form here and, whatever failings Stone may have, his performance is not among them. His scenes with Edward Norton (with whom he also appeared in the 2001 heist movie, The Score) crackle with tension, although the screenplay never takes full advantage of what it has in these two. Milla Jovovich, who typically appears in less lofty company, holds her own, as does Frances Conroy in a smaller part.
The story that unfolds focuses on the interaction between corrections officer Jack Mabry (De Niro), who is winding down after more than 40 years in a job about which he has become disgusted and disillusioned, and inmate Stone (Norton), who, after serving eight years of a 10-15 year sentence for arson, is up for parole. Stone is so desperate to get out from behind bars that he recruits his wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), to approach Jack away from the prison walls and do whatever is necessary to gain his cooperation. Since Lucetta is a highly sexual creature, there's little doubt what that will entail. Meanwhile, Jack's wife, Madylyn (Frances Conroy), trapped in a loveless marriage, buries her head in the sand. Things take a turn for the weird, however, when Stone appears to connect with his spiritual side, and it becomes an open question whether his transformation is real or a ploy to aid in his parole.
Stone flouts the saying that if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it is a duck. Even though all signs post to this being a noir-tinged thriller - the shadow-rich composition, the flaws of the protagonist, the sense that there are dark secrets, and the apparent presence of a femme fatale - things are more straightforward and less suspenseful than they seem. If Stone is viewed as a thriller, it will be seen not only as pedestrian but as unsatisfying, since calling the ending "ambiguous" is a kind way to describe the situation. The movie doesn't so much end as it stops. With the main story told, the filmmakers appear unconcerned about all the loose ends left dangling.
Stone is more effective as a character piece, although none of the four primary individuals is fleshed out sufficiently for it to be entirely successful playing in this arena. The film takes short-cuts to the detriment of its credibility. For example, Stone's conversion is accomplished so quickly and with so little build-up that it seems more like a narrative contrivance than genuine slab in his character arc. It's hard to accept as real, so a possibly false predisposition is created by the way in which the story is presented. In some cases, such careful audience manipulation might be considered clever. Here, it's merely sloppy.
Curran saturates the background with religious and spiritual language and imagery. Every time a character is in a car, there's a Christian talk radio station playing. Each of the four primary characters has distinct views about morality, God, and the afterlife. (Or do they?) Curran's reach exceeds his grasp here; it's obvious he's trying to tie all this together to mean something substantive, but his message comes across as garbled and incoherent. Worse, it creates an expectation that there's going to be an eye-opening revelation, but there is none. Stone does no more to resolve this than it does to close any of the character arcs or to answer the questions raised by the thriller elements.
Perhaps Stone would have worked better as a pure art film, freed from any constraints or expectations associated with trying to attract a broader audience. It is, at its heart, not the film noir it tricks us into thinking it is, but a moody, introspective drama with four deeply flawed characters. By failing to establish a strong narrative spoke, Stone wastes some strong performances and is likely to generate the same level of irate audience reaction as the superior The American.
Stone (United States, 2010)
Cast: Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Milla Jovovich, Frances Conroy
Screenplay: Angus MacLachlan
Cinematography: Maryese Alberti
U.S. Distributor: Rogue Pictures