Movie Review: Stone
The Charlotte Observer
When did Robert De Niro stop trying? When did he start coasting on his well-deserved reputation, either mocking it in crass comedies or sleepwalking through dramas where fans filled in the missing emotions for him?
He has the raw material in “Stone” to shape a complex performance as parole supervisor Jack Mabry: the conflict between lifelong religious teachings and knee-weakening lust, a sense of responsibility that outlasts decades of frustration in his job, the obligation to outwit a convict who’s playing him for a fool.
Yet as he’s done for a decade, the inexpressive De Niro acts mostly by raising and lowering his voice. We ought to see fear, guilt, spiritual agony or carnal desire in his eyes, but we get only the indifferent expectation of a paycheck.
Jack’s a few months short of retirement when he meets Stone (Edward Norton), who had burned down his grandparents’ house after an accomplice shot them. Stone wants to cut years off his sentence and knows his bad temper and lack of remorse won’t impress a parole board. So he tells wife Lucetta (Milla Jovovich) to seduce Jack, compromising him so he’ll have to recommend Stone be set free.
Winston-Salem screenwriter Angus MacLachlan is in unfamiliar territory in “Stone” in two ways: geographic and graphic.
MacLachlan, who acted with Charlotte Repertory Theatre throughout the 1990s (notably in “Angels in America”), has typically explored the literal and emotional landscape of the South in plays and scripts, including “Junebug.” But “Stone” is set around Detroit, in a grim milieu director John Curran exploits for atmosphere. (The story was originally meant to be shot in the rural South.)
And the intimacy between MacLachlan’s characters has never been as steamy as here – or, at least, as steamy as it would have been had De Niro seemed to be aware there was a naked woman in his bed.
Though the material begins promisingly enough, the casting’s almost impossible to believe: Jovovich is implausible as a kindergarten teacher, and De Niro doesn’t begin to convince us he’s the type of man who listens to Christian radio all day long and is suffering a deep crisis of faith.
Norton is convincing in every phase of Stone’s character, from unrepentant wise guy to the man who seems to find inner calm after studying the religious teachings of Zukangor, a kind of warmed-over Hinduism. (Norton wanted a writing credit for his contributions to the film, but Writers Guild of America arbitrators turned him down.)
What’s not convincing are the ambiguous psychological twists: Lucetta may or may not have fallen in love with Jack, who has the charisma of a doorknob; Zukangor helps the skeptical Stone find peace; Jack wrestles with inner demons. These things take place because the story demands them, not because they follow any kind of logic.
Ultimately, “Stone” raises too many expectations it never meets, not least with repeated shots of De Niro handling a gun that never serves any purpose in the story. Perhaps, like his performance, it was filled only with blanks.