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In the spare, melancholy "Stone," Robert De Niro plays Jack Mabry, a devout Christian prison parole officer beaten down by the decades of lies he's heard from convicts. Like sinners confronting St. Peter at the gates of Heaven, they insist they're innocent, they're repentant, they've discovered religion. Jack, the most rigid of straight arrows, sustains himself with a nonstop stream of Christian talk radio, a few jumbo bourbons between dinnertime and bed, and the companionship of his pious wife, Madylyn (Frances Conroy).
Among Jack's final cases is arsonist Stone Creeson (Edward Norton). After eight years inside, Stone is eligible for release, but he must persuade Jack that he's rehabilitated. The initial interviews do not go well. Stone distrusts the stiff bureaucrat behind the desk. Jack sees in Stone all the dangerous impulses he fears in his own makeup. Jack's myth about himself is that he is a righteous man, devoted to duty. But, thanks to a prologue, we know he's in full-on denial about his own destructive urges.
Enter Stone's wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), a sexpot with a cruel little twinkle in her eye. When Stone sends her to contact Jack about his parole hearing, the film appears to be shaping up as a standard blackmail thriller. Instead, "Stone" becomes a three-way personality study, as each player maneuvers, reacts and evolves through pressure from the other two. Each embodies many contradictions, character defects and weaknesses, and the film keeps us guessing.
Filmed in a seemingly loose, but actually rigorous style of naturalism by John Curran, "Stone" is a true ensemble piece. Lucetta scares us and puts us on edge. She's a poisonous lollipop; one lick and it's over. Yet for all her tricks and teases, she seems oddly loyal to her long-imprisoned husband. Stone visits the religion shelf of the prison library to bolster his claim that he has found God. When he later announces he's had a religious revelation, we can't tell if he's speaking from the heart or from research. In a moving eulogy, Jack praises his deceased brother for having lived a good life. Now that he's psychologically under siege, will he be able to do the same? At the finale one character has been reborn, another's soul has disintegrated and the third has a new beginning from which to make the same old mistakes. I doubt that one viewer in a hundred will be able to predict the final score.
As in every good dialogue-driven film, talk equals action. The excitement here is sparked by the verbal and gestural give-and-take between the actors. De Niro's performance is some of the most compelling work he's done in a decade (not that this has been his outstanding decade). In his world-weary domestic scenes with Conroy we see another kind of life sentence, two strangers shackled together, trudging the long last mile. He delivers the ideal fusion of spiritual exhaustion and cloaked malevolence.
Norton's Stone reeks of false bonhomie in his early scenes. We can see him think as he mentally angles his way through the interviews. Then he begins to change, and it's not just his corn-rowed hair that uncoils. Jovovich seems at times a pawn in her husband's game, and then a happy hooker amused by her power over men. Watching the movie is a strange experience as each reveals a good side and an evil side in turn. Scene after scene is tug-of-war, hide-and-seek as the trio maneuver for leverage and self-preservation. The story stays in flux. We're unsure of what comes next but enjoy the uncertainty.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186