Edward Norton shined in début dual-personality as his Primal Fear altar boy conned egocentric lawyer Richard Gere, and he reprises the put-on practice now on corrections parole officer Robert De Niro. Stone has its lapses, as in his come-on sexpot wife Lucetta’s (Milla Jovovich) stretch scenes as a kindergarten teacher, or a second’s ghost-memory child in a flaming house. Most notable, why include Norton’s Gerald Creeson’s spiritual prison meditations and, equally unobserved by outsiders, his standoffish attitude with that wife on their last visitor’s meeting, in light of final actions, that is, faked character changes to speed along parole when no one is even watching?
Such plot holes are, nevertheless, overlooked in the psychological one-upsmanship among the two men and their wives, all well performed. It is welcome to see De Niro return to acting after a long dry spell sleepwalking through parts beneath his talents. His subsequent character in this film is near unrecognizable in the young golf-addict father (Enver Gjokaj) who makes to toss sleeping daughter Candy from the second storey if wife Madylyn (Pepper Binkley) leaves him because “I’m not standing for this.” The buzz of a wasp crushed when she relents and he slams the window, will make its noise reappearance much later, and the episode be referred to, without explanation by the wife, to the now grown divorced mother Candice (Rachel Loisella).
Jack and Madylyn Mabry’s (De Niro, Frances Conroy) marriage has weathered up to this present last month of his job at a Michigan correctional facility. The relationship of forty years is stale, neither emotionally nor physical intimate, a routine of habit, convention and laziness. With only the occasional nip, in church-going and porch-sitting the time together is passed, even if he is emotionally absent during both activities. His violent temper is sublimated, while she submissively represses desperation in housewifery and poker games with the girls.
He checks his pistol with security at work, greets attractive replacement Janice (Sarab Kamoo) and, imperturbable, concentrates on interviewing and recommending yes-or-no on conditional freedom for final case Creeson, who prefers his nickname “Stone.” Hair cornrowed, arms and shoulders tattooed, his accent Westside ghetto, the title character insists he is reformed and ready for the outside but, after eight of a ten-to-fifteen-year manslaughter sentence, will go insane if penned up any longer. Whether or not the then-druggie did not realize cousin Teach was killing their grandparents, he does concede having spontaneously poured gasoline and torched their house in line with his addiction to arson.
Morphing from what under the circumstances is unwise arrogance on his part, to seeing the light and hearing the sound in a chance “Power of Zukangor” pamphlet and turning to New Age-y spirituality, the now neatly coiffed prisoner denies playing mind-games with the interviewer who determines his fate. Given the ending, the conversion should not be sincere: like the Melvillean Confidence-Man intuiting that to which the antagonist will not admit, or perhaps just striking it lucky, Stone is on a track that may lead to his advantage. To cover all bases, he sics Lucetta on the target. Lusting for her husband yet available to many, she wheedles her way into vulnerable Jack’s personal and professional life, to the detriment of his rational, legal judgment more easily than one would like to believe happens.
A pastor offers up biblical platitudes to troubled Jack, while at home and in cars and in people’s heads Christian call-in talk radio WDDL blabs of Calvinistic sin versus salvation. Stone and Lucetta each warn against believing or trusting the other, but, venting hidden true selves in obscene outbursts, no one of these good, bad or ordinary Middle Americans comes out spiritually worthy or whole.
One or more lives are wrecked for the hell of it, vengeance is mine to be taken or not, but no one is justified in His sight. Like a celluloid American Gothic, John Curran’s Stone does not paint a pretty picture.
(Released by Overture Films and rated “R” for strong sexuality and violence, and pervasive language.)