By Don Simpson | October 9, 2010
Director: John Curran
Writer: Angus MacLachlan
Starring: Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Milla Jovovich, Frances Conroy
Jack Mabry (Robert De Niro), a parole officer who is on the verge of retirement, has only a few remaining cases on his docket; one of whom is Gerald Creeson — he prefers “Stone” (Edward Norton). Convicted as an accessory to arson and the murder of his grandparents, Stone has served a majority of his sentence but he desires early parole nonetheless. It is up to Jack to recommend Stone’s parole and the two men find themselves stubbornly locked in debate meeting time and time again but seemingly making little progress.
At home, Jack is trapped in a loveless marriage of 43 long years to his wife Madylyn (Frances Conroy). Madylyn buries her head in her Bible while Jack imbibes in his booze and watches golf on the television. The shocking opening prologue clearly explains why Madylyn hates Jack — it also causes the audience to be less forgiving of him as well.
In other words, Jack and Stone are both serving out prison sentences; one figuratively and one literally. Jack chose his life sentence in rural seclusion with a wife who no longer loves him. Stone, on the other hand, came by his prison time the old fashioned way, he earned it.
When Stone confides to Jack that his wife Lucetta (Milla Jovovich) is from another world (meaning her sexual perversions — of course she is a grade school teacher) his frankness is a means to entice Jack to meet Lucetta — and Lucetta thus commences stalking Jack. Jack appears to catch on to their game rather quickly, repeatedly rejecting Lucetta’s seductively whispered advances; but Lucetta’s powers of persuasion eventually break Jack down reeling him in to a burning moral quagmire of blazing proportions.
All the while, Stone discovers Eckankar — a new age-y religion of sound — which reveals to Stone some new insights into the human condition. At first Stone’s newly discovered spirituality seems like a ploy for an early release (Jack’s propensity for Christian AM talk radio leads me to believe that he would not recognize Stone’s beliefs in Eckankar to be a redeeming transformation) but Stone seems truly convinced that Eckankar offers the answers that he has been searching for. (According to Eckankar, individuals are responsible for their own destiny; in other words, one’s decisions determine one’s future.) Stone’s spirituality begins to complicate the terms of his release, especially knowing full well the dirty deeds that his wife has done to get him out.
The women of this story (Madylyn and Lucetta), each possessing their own unwavering views of God, are critical to the propulsion of the narrative. By way of repulsion (prompting their husbands to rebel against them), they effectively alter their husbands’ life tragectories. If it were not for Madylyn and Lucetta, Stone and Jack would probably still be in Jack’s office engaged in a pissing contest or a staring duel.
Where some viewers (and critics) may see inconsistent characterizations, I see the shape-shifting personalities of characters who constantly adapt in order to get by. Many of the characters’ personality traits seem flawed or exaggerated because, more than likely, the trait is just a facade or bait or a smoke screen.
Angus MacLachlan’s script exists in a realm of utter greyness — nothing is clearly black or white, evil or good. If we believe his story, Stone has lost a decade of his life just for being near a double murder (and then participating in the cover up). To paraphrase Stone: why are his crimes any worse than the horrible things that Jack has done? What qualifies Jack to be the prison’s gatekeeper, the person who Stone and other inmates must pass through in order to obtain parole? (Or to paraphrase the Bible: what gives any human being the right to cast stones at another?)
Directed by John Curran (The Painted Veil), Stone is a weighty cogitation on the nature(s) of evil and the justness of punishment(s). Stone is by no means a thriller or a prison movie, instead it is a very slow burn leaving the audience with countless questions to ponder after exiting the theater.
Spiritual faith is a major issue here, specifically the relentless challenges that are intertwined with religious beliefs. Just as in our real world, Christian talk radio is used as a constant commentary on the narrative; a constant buzz-buzz-buzzing in the ear. In clever juxtaposition to the narrative, the voices from the AM radio are quite self-assured and their statements are unrealistically absolute. They is no greyness in the realm of Christian talk radio; it is all, quite simply, black and white.