Quite how an actor of Edward Norton’s caliber can have two of his films – featuring two fine performances, no less – head straight-to-video within one month, I do not know. That the second film, Stone, struggled to secure a theatrical release despite starring Robert De Niro, however, is simply mind-boggling. It may not juggle its various aspirations perfectly, but Stone is an odd, mostly compelling little thriller which deserves better.
It’s ironic that it has taken a film that most people probably won’t even see for De Niro to return to a project that can be considered even remotely juicy.
After numerous recent duds such as Righteous Kill and Little Fockers, he seems very much at home here as Jack Mabry, a correctional officer who oversees the release of prison inmates, and comes unstuck when faced with the slippery Gerald “Stone” Creeson (Norton). Slowly, Creeson manipulates Mabry through their meetings, and may or may not be using his girlfriend, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich) to try and seduce Mabry.
De Niro proves early on that he can still ream a guy out like nobody else; the opening meeting between Creeson and Mabry is a particular testament to this, with a confident, smart screenplay allowing the legend to remind us why he’s regarded as such a lion of the industry, creating some of his more memorable recent cinematic moments, in the good way this time. Norton, meanwhile, manages to keep pace, in a role that walks a fine line between distracting hilarity and vicious intelligence. Kitted out in cornrows and sporting a rent-a-gangster accent, many actors would fail to give the role gravitas, yet Norton commits to it so fully as he always does that we can scarcely tell it’s an act.
Surprisingly praise-worthy in the most prominent supporting role is Milla Jovovich as the temptress who threatens to derail Mabry’s life. No doubt her most alluring turn to date, she plays Lucetta with the duality needed to keep the central enigma consistently engaging; she seems innocent and well-intended, while at the same time being very beautiful, sexual and resourceful beyond most expectations.
Stone is very much a film of two prominent themes – of how we treat inmates as they attempt to reintegrate into society, and also the nature of faith, of how it grows, evolves, and changes by way of circumstance, while also giving rise to it. Mabry’s own crisis of faith as he weighs up the prospect of negating his long-withered marriage to Madylyn (Frances Conroy) is kept compelling by a philosophical script and the fine work by De Niro, while the meditation on prison life – of how the crime is pored over again and again, perhaps ultimately impeding the perp’s capacity for rehabilitation – manages to make an occasionally sympathetic figure out of its perverse titular character, thanks to Norton’s deft performance.
The real issue the film faces is of how to make these elements coincide, causing things to slip uneasily at times between a slimy erotic thriller you might see on terrestrial TV at three in the morning, and a more potent mystery thriller. There are also a few narrative hiccups; it’s tough to buy how quickly the seemingly buttoned-down Mabry opens up to Lucetta, and the spiritual radio station he listens to doles out the film’s themes with an overt sense of grandstanding.
It also takes far too long to move its pieces into their final formations, and the ending is perhaps too elliptical for some, while the religious sentiments are more than a tad overbearing (like a less subtle, genre-centric version of the brilliant A Serious Man). However, the lengthy scenes of verbal sparring between the two leads are infectiously fun to watch in their own right. A low-scene count evokes the feel of a play, with dialogues somehow feeling economic despite many of them lasting close to ten minutes.
Stone is an unusual film which shifts uneasily between sleaze and philosophy, but it’s distinguished at all times by three luminous performances.
Unusually for a thriller, most of Stone’s “action” takes place during the day, giving your TV a chance to run through a diverse colour palette. It’s not going to show off Blu-Ray terribly well, but it looks vibrant enough and that’ll more than do.
Aurally, the airy, atmospheric soundtrack lends itself well, though again, it’s a dialogue-driven character piece for the most part, so don’t expect much crash-bang-wallop for your buck.
The Making of Stone (11 minutes) – The cast and crew pore over the plot with little additional insight. It’s spoiler-heavy, though, so make sure you don’t watch it before you see the film.
Interviews (7 minutes) – Features mostly extended versions of the soundbytes used for the Making Of segment, though frankly there’s little added. More than a tad insulting as far as extras go.
Stone is released on Blu-ray today.