Reviewed at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival.
To say “Stone” requires faith – both from its audience and as a recurring theme – would be an incredible understatement. That it made this agnostic care would be another.
Already established to some as the “Edward Norton in cornrows” movie, it’s a serious drama that I entered with understandable skepticism, whether it’s seeing the Millenium/Nu Image logo and wondering if this was just another paycheck job for Robert De Niro or if Milla Jovovich can play someone of this earth – the answer to those questions is no, and sort of, but then that’s where “Stone” becomes something special.
It’s during Jack Mabry’s (De Niro) first interview with prospective parolee Gerald “Stone” Creeson (Norton) that Jovovich’s Lucetta is called an “alien” by her lover Creeson and despite not appearing onscreen until later, one might agree knowing “The Fifth Element” actress is playing the part. Weeks from retirement, Mabry appears to think Creeson’s cornrows are pulled to tight, yet learns himself the strange power Lucetta holds when she injects herself into his life on the outside, pleading on him to release her husband on countless voicemails, in the prison parking lot, and ultimately, when Mabry succumbs to her advances, her apartment.
Lucetta is indeed an other, one who takes immense pleasure in the pursuit, but has little interest in the end result, something both Mabry and Creeson know very little of since they’re both serving out life sentences in different ways. Mabry chose his incarceration in the country with a wife (Frances Conroy) that doesn’t love him and going into the city only for a thankless job that rarely holds surprises; the film shows early how Mabry sunk himself into this rut, but it is a rare opening scene that sends shockwaves through the rest of “Stone,” so I won’t spoil it here. Creeson, on the other hand, came by his time in prison the old fashioned way, helping to burn down his grandparents’ house while they were inside.
However, Creeson embraces spirituality in the pen, which isn’t necessarily the key to an early release, but the start of a search for something more profound that actually complicates matters as Lucetta pleads for her husband’s parole while her husband begins to question his culpability. Like an angel and a devil sitting on his shoulder, Lucetta and Creeson plunge Mabry into a moral quandary and if “Stone” were simply about whether prison actually has the ability to rehabilitate its denizens, it would be a thoughtful examination.
Yet director John Curran and writer Angus MacLachlan are after something far more elusive in meditating on the nature of evil in a way that would make it compelling bookend with “No Country for Old Men,” reversing that film’s emphasis on the crimes to the perspective of the punishment received. “Stone” may not be considered quite as accomplished as the Coen brothers’ effort, but that likely depends on whether you appreciate Curran and MacLachlan being more overt in asking the question
Certainly, it is no less provocative, thanks in large part to its trio of actors. Contrary to what the poster reads, Jovovich is the film’s main attraction, putting her husky voice and withering frame to use as a slippery slope of ethical backpedaling for De Niro’s Mabry. She is one of the most memorable femme fatales in some time, made all the more interesting by the fact Jovovich’s slinky charms have rarely been tapped in such a way.
De Niro, meanwhile, is gifted with a character with a rich inner life that so many of his recent films haven’t allowed for. He remains a curmudgeon here, but one that has earned it not by holding vomiting babies a tad too close or dealing with an unwanted in-law, but by being asked to be something more than a dispassionate observer and De Niro comes alive in the role, with his considerable gravitas used for far more than selling the prestige of the movie.
As for Norton, he plays the title character of the film, but it’s a part that largely resembles a MacGuffin. In spite of his southern-fried accent and prison yard swagger, Norton impressively takes an outwardly ostentatious character and lets him fade into the background slightly as the man whose fate is being debated, but is only a part of a far larger debate. “Stone” isn’t just interested in spurring that discussion, it deserves it.
“Stone” opens wide on October 8th.