Jack Mabry (Robert DeNiro) has spent the last 30 years working in a Bible Belt state prison. A month away from retirement, he wants to wrap up his cases as a parole eligibility officer. One of his “clients” is Gerald Creeson (Edward Norton), a convicted arsonist doing his eighth year of a 10 to 15 stretch. Jack is a hard man to fool, however, and Creeson uses every tool in his inventory, even his pretty wife Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), to get out of jail in “Stone.”
This three-hander, directed by John Curran from the adapted screenplay by Angus MacLachlan (who authored the original play), is well acted by DeNiro, Norton and Jovovich. Edward Norton, especially, gives another fine performance as a man who cannot face doing the rest of his prison sentence. We meet Stone (Gerald’s nickname), hair made up in corn rolls, during his first interview with Jack. He is a volatile young man and impatient, something Jack does not take too well. Stone almost blows the interview when Jack reads him the riot act.
Lucetta visits her husband in prison and Stone asks her to talk, directly, to Jack about his case. This is, of course, inappropriate and Mabry tells her in no uncertain terms when she tries to talk to him face to face. Lucetta, though, is a strong willed and sexy young woman and proceeds to seduce the older man. Meanwhile, the interviews continue and Jack has to decide if Creeson goes before the parole board or not.
“Stone” is an actor’s film with the story taking a back seat to the thesps. The ongoing interview process, which seems to take weeks, feels contrived but gives Norton, in particular, a chance to show his chops as a serious actor. DeNiro does his usual working class schtick as the tough, thoughtful prison official who holds the lives of his assignments in balance. His decision will mean freedom or doing the rest of their time. Milla gives her Lucetta a character arc as she moves from carefree and fun in the beginning to more serious and affected by her relationship with Jack.
Production is simple with Jack’s office, his home with his wife Madylyn (Frances Conroy) and Lucetta’s seedy flat the only locations. Photography, by Maryse Alberti, is of the extreme close up variety with the actors’ faces filling the entire screen, giving “Stone” a claustrophobic feel. Other techs are adequate.
I enjoyed the acting but “Stone,” overall, runs flat. I give it a C+.
At a Michigan Correctional Institution, parole officer Jack Mabry (Robert De Niro) is nearing retirement. He's tired of the cons who try to manipulate his opinion and how the ones that succeed routinely end up back on his doorstep. His last case, 'Stone' Creeson (Edward Norton, "The Painted Veil"), is an odd duck, a cornrowed, tattooed con who at first refuses to converse then, in a Southern croak, lasciviously describes his sex life with his wife and innocently inquires into what Jack's is like after forty years of marriage. Mabry may intuit that there's a game afoot but by the time Lucetta Creeson's (Milla Jovovich, the "Resident Evil" series) gotten under his skin outside the prison walls and her husband's found an aural form of religion within, Jack doesn't quite know what to make of "Stone."
In his first screenplay, "Junebug," Angus MacLachlan contrasted city sophisticates with country relatives with surprising insights into both, especially the man who bridged the gap. With his followup, MacLachlan abandons comedy while contrasting two men from opposing sides of the law who dance around each other, one embracing spirituality as the other crumbles. Director John Curran reteams with his "The Painted Veil" star Ed Norton, who gives a mesmerizing performance as the ever-evolving, questionable of trust Stone. This is a film that leads its audience down a garden path, expecting one thing, then branching off to several unexpected places. Its ambiguity can be frustrating, but better a flawed film that provokes thought than yet another genre film going through its paces.
Curran stages a dynamic opening scene, a flashback to the early years of the Mabry marriage. A taciturn Jack (Enver Gjokaj, TV's 'Doll House') sits in a living room armchair, drink in hand as his wife Madylyn (Pepper Binkley, later Frances Conroy, HBO's "Six Feet Under") quietly skitters around him. She goes upstairs to check on their young daughter, looking out the window at the fields around the old farmhouse. A bee buzzes against the window screen. After making a decision, Madylyn goes downstairs and, for probably the only time in her life, throws down a gauntlet - 'You keep my soul in a dungeon,' she says, then announces she is leaving. Jack's actions to keep her there are horrifying.
Everything about this sequence, from the wallpaper down to the freckles on Binkley's face, is perfect and the whole is charged with electricity. Unfortunately, Curran never goes any further in analyzing the Mabry marriage. We just know that its early years were dreadful and that a complacency has settled over a couple who have learned to coexist.
A similar problem befalls the Creeson union, one described by Stone on fire for the year before he was incarcerated. Marital visits still show the heat (Stone has to cool down Lucetta's physicality so as not to be forfeited so close to his parole hearing), but as their con on Mabry comes to fruition, something seems to change and its unclear exactly why (is the smeary application of Lucetta's magenta lipstick and nail polish supposed to represent this indistinctness, her sunny schoolteacher juxtaposed with her promiscuous sensuality?). That heat will jump from the Creesons to the Mabrys in a literal sense once Madylyn's been exposed to Lucetta and makes her conclusions. Madylyn's ultimate strike also parallels Stone's crime, and it is in this parallel symbolism that exists not only between the two men but between the two marriages that makes "Stone" so intriguing.
And yet even the symbolism isn't as fleshed out as it should be. After trying, and failing, to contact her husband's case officer by phone, Lucetta waits for Jack in the prison parking lot one morning. He tries to evade her, but she's insistent. She's brought him a gift, a bird's nest made by her class. Later, when Lucetta is granted an on site meeting, she sits and peels Easter eggs, offering Jack one. Interesting, but what in heck does it mean? Beats me, other than a vague connection to a daughter who Jack doesn't see very often anymore, a bird who's flown the nest. When Stone spies a fellow inmate reading the Bible to his son during visiting hours, he's inspired to hit the prison library, where he finds a pamphlet on Zukangor and gets hooked on the premise that God can speak to you through sounds as if you become a tuning fork. He tries to explain this to Jack, who smells a convenient conversion, and uses the sound of a bee as example. This immediately recalls that bee in the opening scene, one that was smashed at scene's end between the window and its sill. Conversely, though, whenever Jack is in his car, his radio is tuned in to "All the Voices of the Lord." Perhaps a second viewing of the film would reveal more in the film's admirably detailed sound design. (Watch the late evolution of Stone's hair styling for a more obvious suggestion, his last words to Jack an echo of his 'judge not lest ye be judged' opening soliloquy.)
Norton is outrageously good in the lead role, laugh out loud funny in Stone's earliest incarnation, gradually evolving into someone quite serious. It's yet another of the dual type roles Norton's beginning to specialize in, from the one that broke him out in "Primal Fear" to the more literal double role he takes on in "Leaves of Grass." But while it's good to see De Niro reach for something other than a paycheck, his Jack Mabry is flat. He gets some fire in him for a couple of speeches, sure, but the character never achieves depth like Stone does. Despite some ambiguity of character, Jovovich is much more striking as the temptress Lucetta. Frances Conroy gives Madylyn a spectral presence as Jack's religious wife except for one jarring scene where lashes out drunkenly. Kudos to the casting director who found Pepper Binkley as a match for the younger Madylyn.
The film is very well constructed from that terrific sound to Maryse Alberti's (The Wrestler) cinematography and the dressing of sets, particularly the Mabrys' isolated and long unchanged farmhouse. If only "Stone's" meaning was a little more grounded. It's a film that floats between the ethereal and the real without quite defining either.
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