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A character study overloaded with ironic reversals, John Curran and Angus MacLachlan's Stone seems altogether too familiar. A manipulative prisoner challenges his parole officer, using his promiscuous, irresistibly seductive wife to clinch a positive report for the parole board. Followers of screen acting will be intrigued to see how the interesting acting duel of Robert De Niro and Edward Norton fares, as at least a third of the movie consists of the two powerhouse actors contending with each other in a prison office. And in a role that fifteen years ago might have gone to Sharon Stone or Virginia Madsen, Milla Jovovich shows herself more than capable of portraying that kind of siren that can get most any man to do anything she asks.
The emotionally insulated parole officer Jack (De Niro) has done some terrible things in his life. His wife Madylyn (Frances Conroy) has retreated from their empty marriage to the church. Jack is near retirement when he asks his boss if he can follow through with the case of "Stone" (Edward Norton), an arsonist. Jack is frustrated in the pre-parole hearing interviews when Stone starts off in flip-obscene mode and then begins chipping away at Jack's authority and his narrow definition of faith. Stone asks his wife Lucetta (Milla Jovovich) to seduce Jack, a task she's more than capable of carrying out. When calling him at home doesn't work she accosts him in the prison parking lot, asking when they can "get together". Jack knows what's happening but can't prevent himself from slipping into the trap. What's more, he begins to believe that the cagey Stone deserves to be released. Meanwhile, Stone stumbles onto a pamphlet for a self-realization religion called Zukangor, and appears to receive his own epiphany of spiritual enlightenment. We know that Stone is intelligent -- is he really a changed man, or is he just fooling himself as he wants to fool Jack?
It's a good thing that Stone delivers some interesting psychological twists, because its basic story is woefully predictable. Stone wants to be free, Stone's wife jumps in bed with Jack, the man who makes the recommendation, and pretty soon Jack doesn't know why he's doing anything anymore. There's very little subtlety here, which invites negative comparisons with Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder. In that story a defense attorney is "professionally amused" by the unlikeable defendant's wife, who seems to be trying to charm the attorney into going to extreme lengths to win the case. Everything in Preminger's film is ambivalent: the attorney never compromises himself but he's clearly impressed by the wife. The defendant's guilt is thrown into doubt, but not by much. Buried somewhere under a pile of sordid motives is the concept of justice.
Stone begins with the liability of a showboat performance. Edward Norton makes the arsonist (and possible murderer) into a full-on Hannibal Lecter type - an expert at eroding a person's psychological self-confidence. Stone presents a smokescreen of jive talk, obscene remarks about his sexy wife and unwelcome personal observances that put Jack off balance. His hair arranged in dreadlocks and an insolent look in his eyes, Stone is daring Jack to stay professional. Of course, the idea is that Jack will overcompensate, and feel grateful when Stone starts communicating on a man-to-man basis. We're used to Norton playing variations on this same character. De Niro's Jack is a rock ready to crumble, a man who doesn't realize that his moral strength is an illusion.
Jack succumbs to Lucetta's advances for the obvious reasons, and falls into the expected confusion that affects his professional judgment. The further complications of Angus MacLachlan's script may seem inspired, or just new facets of the same schema. When Stone asks Jack if he's never done anything wrong, Jack pointedly says that he's never been arrested for anything. But we know that Jack is guilty of domestic abuse almost as twisted as Stone's drug-induced decision to cover a crime with fire. Jack challenges Stone for not believing in anything but is himself a full-fledged hypocrite. Although he appears to hate it, he tunes in to born-again revivalist propaganda on the radio, and poor Madylyn responds to his obvious extramarital affair by drinking heavily and retreating further into her Bible readings. Meanwhile, the 'corrupt' Stone appears to be undergoing a personal conversion, discovering within himself a faith-based spiritual harmony. The story structure seems to have started with the idea that Stone and Jack would switch places on the "moral ascendancy" scale. Only the screenwriter's good dialogue and the interesting performances prevent Stone from resembling a Powerpoint presentation about men trading Yin and Yang qualities.
Director Curran (The Painted Veil) keeps things reasonably active, although after twenty or so postcard-pretty wide exteriors accompanied by radio chatter, we've had enough. Likewise, the director's attempts to enliven some of the key dialogue scenes by moving the camera seem counter-productive. The two actors already have our full attention, and this camera awareness seems to be Curran inviting himself into the scene. Jack and Lucetta's sex scenes are credible but not exploitative -- Ms. Jovovich does most of her seducing with her witchy eyes and sexy voice, which is at its most potent when reduced to a whisper.
One nice directorial choice is that Stone plays without a soundtrack score, which forces us to weigh scenes more on what we see and hear from the characters, without a "guide track" to dictate our responses. This notion has to be qualified somewhat by the fact that the carefully controlled effects soundtrack, in which natural sounds (crickets, bees) sometimes fill the same function that musical tones might.
Stone was prepped and released as a possible Oscar contender. If it seems to have been passed over, it's not for any defect in quality but because only a few Fall "quality" releases are given a media push adequate to convince the public that they're something special. The winners are usually the titles with built-in commercial prospects (True Grit, Black Swan, 127 Hours). What's somewhat depressing is that there aren't enough good roles for our best actors. Robert De Niro has been making lame comedies lately and Edward Norton seems invisible unless he's playing one of his multifaceted screen psychos. Milla Jovovich may be similarly stuck playing sexy, & dangerous when it's obvious that she can also play interesting; I'm a fan of her go at the Joan of Arc role. Stone can be commended for showcasing these serious, experienced talents.
Anchor Bay's DVD and Blu-ray of Overture's Stone is the expected beautiful transfer -- have you seen a new movie lately that wasn't visually attractive? -- that does particularly well with the night exteriors of Jack's house in the country. The audio is particularly clear, with excellent sound work on the effects and presences. The Blu-ray and DVD presentations both contain a making-of featurette and the film's trailer. By emphasizing the basics of the plot, the trailer makes the story seem like something we've already seen.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Stone Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.