Guest contributor John W. Smith is in Austin, Texas, for Fantastic Fest, which premiered director John Curran's Stone.
It’s hard to enjoy a bleak, dour movie like Stone, which begins with a disturbing threat of domestic violence and ends with its characters broken and hollow. There’s no redemption by the conclusion of Stone, just epiphanies — a misguided spiritual awakening by one character and the realization of a lifetime of emptiness by another.
The film follows Jack Mabry (Robert De Niro), a Michigan parole officer a month away from retirement. The filmmakers establish their theme early, as Jack gives a eulogy for his brother, a man who “lived right.” Over and over we see how Jack and his equally repressed and deeply unhappy wife Madylyn (Frances Conroy) have used religion to confirm, to themselves, that they are good people. Yet their marriage is misery for both. In the car Jack constantly listens to Christian radio (occasionally a nice touch, almost functioning as a Greek chorus), to reinforce to himself that he has the moral high ground.
His last case is Gerald "Stone" Creeson (Edward Norton), in prison for the murder of his grandparents. He's a needy, pathetic figure who refuses to accept the role he played in their deaths. He questions and needles Jack as they battle verbally over issues of character, sin and guilt. Much of the first half of the film is primarily this strained conversation between the two — one man desperate to make the other do what he wants, and the other just wanting to turn the page.
The driving force of the plot is Stone’s wife Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), who seduces the unhappily married Mabry in a muddled attempt to get him to recommend her husband's release. Why the movie lasted five minutes after the first time they have sex isn’t clear -- I expected a plot twist, some secret Lucetta has kept from both men that will explode their lives and complicate Jack’s quid pro quo obligation. Instead, the last half-hour consists of characters making shockingly oblivious choices and ridiculous revelations. Why is it supposed to be a surprise that Stone knows Mabry is having sex with his wife? Did Lucetta actually give a damn about her husband, or did she just enjoy the drama? And why didn’t Mabry simply write his recommendation and shut up?
Because we needed to hear more meditation on sin and guilt and the loss of Jack’s faith. We get it: He’s not fit to judge Stone or any man. Couldn’t the filmmakers have given us a bit more than that?
The actors will certainly draw some attention to Stone, even if they’re not blazing any new trails. De Niro plays the same grouchy-old-man character he’s mastered over the past 10 years, but he’s pretty good at it. As Stone, Norton doesn’t quite disappear into the cornrows of his Detroit thug role, but it’s mostly successful. Conroy, meanwhile, plays precisely the same passive-aggressive and pathetic character she excelled at in her years on HBO’s Six Feet Under.
It’s Jovovich who manages to steal the show, bringing a charm and life to Lucetta, who turns out to be the closest thing to a likable character in the film. Her motivations aren’t made clear, but there’s a shiny pleasantry to her early scenes, a bright spot in a dark, sad movie about terribly broken people.
In the end, Stone can be seen as a look at how faith and religion push people through their lives, giving them focus and filling in the open spaces. Stone finds some level of comfort and calm by the end, but the closing of the film doesn’t say much about how it affected his morality. Jack’s morality, however, is broken — assuming it was ever whole in the first place.
Stone opens on Oct. 8.