Damnation, redemption, and strong acting drive film
The “Stone’’ that the coming attractions promise — Edward Norton as a convict with an accent as greasy as his cornrows, Robert De Niro glowering as his parole officer, Milla Jovovich as the convict’s femme fatale wife sent to seduce the cop — is not anything like the “Stone’’ that director John Curran has delivered. What looked like a juicily absurd film noir disguised as a generational acting battle is something closer to a dirge — a dead-serious meditation on faith and grace, redemption and damnation. So few Hollywood movies go here that this one’s oddly welcome, even in its most turgid moments, of which there are many.
At the very least, be thankful that someone has convinced De Niro to give a real performance again, instead of his recent MO of showing up, barking his lines without focus or feeling, and heading directly to the bank. His character, Jack Mabry, isn’t a showy man — on the contrary, he’s as emotionally constipated as they come. But we’ve seen Jack’s potential for violence in an unnerving prologue (in which Enver Gjokaj evokes the young De Niro down to the mole), and the star at times conjures echoes of the volcanic repression of one Travis Bickle.
But, wait — Jack’s the good guy, isn’t he? And Gerald “Stone’’ Creeson (Norton) is the sleazy villain who was an accessory in the murder of his own grandparents, correct? For a while, “Stone’’ shapes up as a standard-issue thriller about the bad-apple prisoner siccing his slinky, amoral wife on the soon-to-retire parole officer, hoping to blackmail his way to freedom. Just as quickly, though, screenwriter Angus MacLachlan starts messing with our heads.
For one thing, there’s the bizarre (and wholly fictional) cult religion — a sort of aural Zen Buddhism — that Stone discovers in the prison library; his moment of sonic satori arrives during a startling sequence of violence. Jack, meanwhile, is carrying a heavy load of sin, or, rather, his devoutly Christian wife, Madylyn (Frances Conroy), is carrying it for him with a martyr’s stoicism.
MacLachlan wrote the 2005 art house hit “Junebug,’’ one of the few recent films to tackle religion in America without losing its head. “Stone’’ suggests the interest might be turning into an obsession. The script was originally set in MacLachlan’s home state of North Carolina but now takes place in Detroit; at its most fervid, the movie suggests Rust Belt Ingmar Bergman. Jack’s sin is never specified, which you can interpret as either an annoying easy out or a generic refusal to listen to God.
What about Stone’s wife, Lucetta (Jovovich)? The convict wonderingly describes her to Jack as “an alien,’’ not the standard term of endearment. As the film rolls forward, we see his point. Lucetta takes to adultery with a carnal eagerness that has nothing to do with whether she finds Jack appealing (let’s assume she doesn’t). If her husband spends “Stone’’ deciding whether to side with the angels, Lucetta (as her name implies) is content to live the life of a she-devil.
Yes, “Stone’’ is just about that dusty and schematic, but the acting saves it: Norton gradually dropping the lard from his hair and his performance as Stone moves into the light, De Niro revealing more and more sides of a man stewing in his own loathsomeness, Conroy gathering strength from her husband’s weaknesses. Darned if Jovovich doesn’t almost steal the movie, though, cutting through the moral swamp of “Stone’’ like a hypersexual reptile.
Curran worked with Norton on the literary adaptation “The Painted Veil,’’ and he seems incapable of the down-and-dirty pleasures of pulp fiction. He may have had no choice — MacLachlan’s thundering Old Testament worldview doesn’t allow for much in the way of humor — yet “Stone’’ plods when it should be gathering implacable force, and the final scenes feel almost abstract. Only an ugly barroom scene between Jack and his attractive replacement (Sarab Kamoo) gives us a concrete glimpse of the demons driving the man.
Yet this is still a more ambitious night at the movies than we’re used to getting, as worth chewing over for what the filmmakers get right as for where they fall short. At its best, “Stone’’ sets up a handful of standard movie heroes and villains, victims and victimizers, and then scrambles the characters until neither we nor they know where in hell they are.