Film Review: DeNiro and Norton in “Stone”
October 25, 2010 2 Comments
Stone is a peculiar (and, at times, thought-provoking) movie that has the appearance and makings of a mainstream thriller, but plays out in much more of an independent fashion; a film that dares to challenge its audience to come up with their own answers to the many questions left unsolved. I normally chalk that up as a strength since having everything spoon-fed to me leaves me feeling insulted as a viewer. But it’s not clear what kind of film director John Curran is trying to make and the script (by Angus MacLachlan) doesn’t give us enough to come to our own conclusions by the time the movie abruptly ends.
It opens on a horrific and inexplicably evil act. Jack and Madylyn Mabry are a young, married couple who have a small daughter. Jack is fixated on watching golf on television, completely ignoring his wife in the process. When Madylyn decides to approach her husband with something that has obviously been weighing heavily on her mind, Jack commits the malevolent and unforgivable deed. Cut to many years later — Jack (Robert DeNiro) and Madylyn (Frances Conroy) are still married in the same modest home (much more worn) and Jack is just a few weeks away from retiring as a corrections officer. By now, the job has left Jack sickened and disillusioned and his marriage certainly seems to be a loveless one. Enter Stone (Edward Norton), a crude and tightly-wound criminal who is up for parole after serving eight years of a 10-15 year sentence for arson. His case — and his very freedom are put in the hands of Jack, a man who has done a good job of hiding his own personal demons over the years. Stone is so anxious to get out from behind prison walls that he talks his over-sexed wife Lucetta (Milla Jovovich) into approaching Jack and doing whatever she must to convince him to free her husband. An intriguing premise filled with great promise — and with the talent at hand, sure to make for an entertaining thriller. But alas, the film has loftier expectations and, though it does play out this tete-a-tete between Jack and Stone quite nicely, it goes a bit off course in places we are not expecting.
The four lead actors give solid, and at times, riveting performances. It is wonderfully refreshing to see DeNiro, after years of starring in silly comedies and subpar thrillers, play a character he can really sink his teeth into. If nothing else, this is a small reminder of how gifted he really is. His scenes behind the desk chatting with Norton crackle with tension and the back-and-forth between the two (as in 2001’s The Score) makes for great drama. Norton, all decked out in cornrows and a raspy southern drawl, is his usual magnetic self, and it is hard for us take take our eyes off of him. The religious epiphany he undergoes is an ambiguous one and we are never sure if this is a genuine transformation or one completely invented to fool Jack. Conroy is perfectly cast as DeNiro’s ultra-religious wife — she walks through the movie half comatose, showing that the decades of marriage to this man has left her completely numb to the world around her. Jovovich also delivers a strong performance, holding her own against such heavyweights…and then some. We’re never sure what her true intentions are and she seems completely natural and at ease in utilizing her sexual prowess. I particularly admired the art direction (Kerry Sanders) here, with such special care being paid to the Mabry home and everything in it. The impression given of the elder couple living there — from the washed-out living room chairs to the TV to the mildly scratched headboard of the couple’s bed — is clear and authentic.
I am afraid many expecting a “DeNiro/Norton” commercial thriller will walk away disappointed and frustrated. There is certainly much to admire and enjoy here, most of all the performances. But the film gets bogged down a bit in all of the religious overtones (a religious radio station is constantly playing in between scenes) and the conclusion may be too ambiguous for its own good. It seems to want to cover more ground than it should, which is admirable, but derails from the drama taking place. My biggest concern was the overall pacing of the film, which is painstakingly slow at times. I wish it had delved more deeply into Jack’s life — he is such a miserable and emotionally-blocked man, it would have been interesting to have a better understanding as to why (though he does try to open up at one point to the local pastor). A commendable effort, with its pros and cons…I would recommend to any DeNiro fan who has been waiting for him to give an impressive performance — or for anybody into these sparse independent dramas. If nothing else, it is surely deserving of a rental.