If you are looking for movie where you can see some of the best acting on screen this year, then look no farther than director John Curran’s (We Don’t Live Here Anymore, The Painted Veil) Stone. If you want a solid plot, actual themes and an enjoyable movie, then Stone might not be the film for you.
Stone is a movie that will have the critic circles buzzing with the jobs done by De Niro and Norton, but it will also have audiences walking out of the theater wondering if they saw the same movie. The acting is top notch — which is to be expected from two of the best actors living today — but the story is scattered and inconsistent, the themes that are mentioned are never fully explored, and the tension that builds up leads to a disappointing climax.
Jack Mabry (De Niro) is a parole officer living the quintessential life of quiet desperation. He is a troubled man, as shown in the first scene of the movie, where he emotionally blackmails his wife Madylyn (Frances Conroy) into staying with him by threatening their daughter.
Flash forward several years, and Mabry is a parole officer whose career is coming to a natural end, but not before he clears a handful of cases waiting to be heard. One of those cases is for Gerald “Stone” Creeson (Ed Norton) an inmate that is up for parole after spending eight years in jail on charges of arson. Stone does not believe in the system, leading him and Mabry to immediately butt heads. Soon, Stone’s wife Lucetta (played by Milla Jovovich) attempts to seduce Mabry, which begins a downward spiral for the parole officer. At the same time, Stone is witness to a brutal prison attack that leads him a spiritual awakening.
As Stone’s parole hearing approaches, the two men are moving in different directions, and their interactions have a profound effect on both men.
From stage to screen
As I was watching this movie, my first thought was that it felt like a play more than a film. After a little digging, I discovered that Angus MacLachlan’s screenplay originated as a play that was staged just once, before he reworked it into a screenplay. The problem is that it still feels like a play, which isn’t always a bad thing, but there are very different ways to approach a theater script and a movie script. There are more tools available to a film, and not using them — as Stone did not — is like watching a four-piece band play with just three instruments. In the case of Stone, the things that are missing stand out, and there is nothing for the gaps in the plot to hide behind. You could even say that in many ways, Stone is the polar opposite of a Michael Bay movie, which is typically more visual than character driven, and both suffer for their lack of balance.
When you have the caliber of actors like Robert De Niro and Ed Norton in the same film, you can expect top-notch performances. In Stone, they not only give great performances, they make the others around them better. Both Norton and De Niro are impressive in their roles. They are masters of their craft, and each does exactly what the character calls for.
The first thing you will notice about Norton in the movie is the way he changes his voice to create a grating tone that matches his Stone nickname. It is a minor thing, but an impressive feat that shows how much he lost himself in the role.
De Niro portrays Mabry with a cold precision that few could pull off as well. He lends the role a subdued quality that is necessary for a character who can best be described as repressed. When Mabry meets Lucetta, his life is on a very simple trajectory that keeps him involved, and at the same time at a distance from people. He is dependable, but empty; an emotional cripple, and a man who does not know how close he is to falling apart.
Jovovich the vixen
The real surprise of the film comes from Jovovich, who plays Lucetta, an overtly sexual, promiscuous, and untrustworthy woman who immediately injects De Niro’s Mabry with a thrill that has been missing from his existence for most of his life.
Lucetta is an interesting character whose motives are only hinted at. She plays well against both Norton and De Niro, but it is never really clear why a woman as wild as Lucetta would wait for eight years for her imprisoned husband. In the scenes between Lucetta and Stone, she is ruled more by lust than love. It is left to the actors to make their characters’ actions seem believable, and many things seem to bend in favor of the plot rather than reality in Stone.
A movie without a watch
During the movie, Stone undergoes a possible spiritual transformation. Norton pulls it off well, but the build up to the transformation is handled oddly. Part of the problem is that there is no sense of time in Stone. That may be the intentional decision of Curran to convey the feeling of isolation in a prison setting, and in Mabry’s life, but it is never clear if the movie takes place over the course of days, weeks, or months. This wouldn’t be a major issue, and might even work for the film, except that Stone’s metaphysical transformation seems to happen in the span of a few days, which partially invalidates the previous eight years of toil and struggle spent in prison.
It does not take long for Lucetta to find ways to manipulate Mabry, which lead to cracks in his armor. Between the questions that arise from Stone after his transformation, and Lucetta’s influence, Mabry finds himself questioning certain things he has taken for granted, and realizes that truths he has accepted all his life may ring hollow.
Stone is a movie that will be judged on how much people enjoy the art of acting. The story is thin, the themes meander, and the visuals are bland, while the music and symbolism are heavy handed, but the movie is exceedingly well acted, and it will appeal to theater lovers more than film goers.
Too many threads, not enough rope
Much of the film is left for the audience to infer from the characters and the actors portraying them. Usually this would be fine if the movie had a strong story or focus to keep everything moving, but there are so many themes and ideas that come up in Stone, but none are ever really resolved, and the promising build up is never really delivered on. If the focus had been on any one of them — or any three of them, Stone might have been an Oscar-caliber film. As it is, there are so many pieces that seem important, but are simply left hanging.
For example, religion plays a recurring role. Mabry listens to religious radio, he and his wife go to church, and he has a meeting with a local minister to discuss his lack of faith. There is heavy buildup about the loss of, or lack of faith, but it never really goes anywhere. And that is the biggest problem with the film. It teases you with several tantalizing ideas, but there is never any real emotional payoff, and the climax of the film feels forced, which is twice as odd when you consider that the rest of the movie is so subdued. There are two key moments at the end of the movie — one is confrontational, the other is a surprise. The confrontational part feels forced and awkward, while the surprise should have been built up more.
De Niro approaches Mabry with a quiet presence that works for the character, but not the story. We are meant to believe that there is a desperation behind his nature, which we see glimpses of because of De Niro’s performance, but only glimpses. So when the inevitable twists come, they feel slightly awkward and unsatisfying. There is a technical grace to his performance, but it lacks passion, a fault shared by the entire film.
I have no doubt that in some circles this movie will be a critical darling, but most audiences will hate it with a passion. Despite some of the best acting of the year, Stone misses several opportunities to delve into the more interesting side of the characters, and instead forces the metaphysical and philosophical natures of each personality to the surface, which would normally be fine, but none of them are compelling.
Yes, De Niro does a fine job as a man living a life devoid of faith, but that does not make for an interesting character study if there is no backdrop to challenge him, other than another character who also happens to be undergoing a spiritual awakening. If this had been a play, it would have been fantastic, but several heavy handed touches, including the music and depressing scenery, ruin the subtlety that this film needs to truly succeed as the work of art that it desperately strives to be, while the lack of plot kills the more general entrainment value.
Stone is a movie that builds towards a resolution that promises to absolve the slow pacing, heavy atmosphere, and the obvious symbolism with a finale that defines the movie, and resolves the experience with a satisfying conclusion. Unfortunately, it does not, and in its wake, Stone gives us three amazing performances that are doomed by the limiting scope of a play that was forced into life as a feature film.