Judge Clark Douglas turns to stone when you are gone.
Some people tell lies. Others live them.
"Nobody can know about this. You know that, right?"
Facts of the Case
Parole officer Jack Mabry (Robert De Niro, Raging Bull) is just a few weeks away from retirement, but he's not content to simply twiddle his thumbs until his last day of work arrives. He insists on finishing all the cases he currently has up for review; he wants to see his projects through to completion. His job is to engage in conversation with prisoners, consider their behavior and determine whether they are potentially ready to re-enter society.
Enter Gerald "Stone" Creeson (Edward Norton, The 25th Hour). Stone has been in prison for the past eight years due to his role as an accomplice in the murder of his grandparents. He's a nervous, fidgety sort of guy who initially seems dismissive of Jack's entire interview process, but eventually he agrees to sit down and make a case for his freedom. Realizing that Jack probably isn't very impressed by his pleadings, Stone asks his wife Lucetta (Milla Jovovich, Resident Evil) to speak with the stern parole officer. Lucetta does more than that, slowly seducing Jack and offering him certain sexual favors in exchange for Stone's freedom. Jack gives in, kicking off a series of intriguing, complicated power struggles.
The plot description I've just provided you with probably makes Stone sound like a trashy B-thriller, but that's only true in terms of the larger plot details. Stone throws one hell of an existential curveball, using its luridly intriguing set-up as a springboard to explore the complicated souls of its troubled characters. Though I'm not certain that everything works, it's a fascinating viewing experience.
Robert De Niro gives his most persuasive performance in years (with respectful nods towards Everybody's Fine and Stardust) as Jack, a man who works very hard to keep his anger in check. In the film's opening scene, we see a flashback to Jack as a young man (Enver Gjokaj, Dollhouse). His wife Madylyn (Pepper Binkley, Morning Glory) says that she's going to leave him. Jack responds by grabbing his young daughter and holding her out the upstairs window. "If you leave me, I'll throw her," he says despairingly. Madylyn promises not to leave. Decades later, Jack and Madylyn (now played by an excellent Frances Conroy, Six Feet Under) are still married.
To the casual observer, this would seem like an impressively stable relationship, but Jack knows deep down that the whole thing is a carefully preserved piece of artifice. So are other things in his life: his reverent professions of religious faith and his appearance as a level-headed professional. Jack works so hard at maintaining control that he's sacrificed any personal pleasure in life as a result. If he is not calm and dignified, he is nothing short of a monster. There is no in-between. He sits and stares at the wall, he reads his morning devotions, he carefully files his papers. He takes no real satisfaction in any of this; he does it to give himself an opportunity to distract himself from the beast within.
Jack is a complex man, but most of the time we understand where he is coming from and what drives him. Stone and Lucetta, on the other hand, are a good deal more challenging to figure out. They are both working towards the same goal: getting Stone out of prison. But how are they working and how much does each party know about what the other is doing? Does Lucetta genuinely care about her husband or is she feeding her own desires? Or both? Does Stone realize that she's going to such provocative lengths to earn his freedom, or does he genuinely think she's just persuading him with friendly chat? Are Stone's candid confessions, rambling stories and behavioral changes all genuine elements of his character or is he orchestrating a nuanced mind game?
The casting of Norton (sporting cornrows and adopting a ragged rasp) is essential to making Stone such a slippery character, as Norton is the rare actor who's been equally persuasive playing cagey con men (The Score, Down in the Valley) and earnest innocence (Death to Smoochy, Everyone Says I Love You)…sometimes both in the same role (Primal Fear). There is one moment in the film in which I am absolutely certain that Stone is genuinely, profoundly affected by something and that he isn't faking his reaction. His behavior changes considerably after this moment, which raises another set of questions. Has he just stopped playing games? Has he just started? Or is he simply changing his method as a result of his personal transformation? Is it possible that he was being completely genuine to begin with and that he's still being genuine now?
In a deviously clever yet unforced touch, director John Curran presents Stone and Jack as men simultaneously reversing direction in their lives. Stone slowly moves from fidgety despair to a state of contentment and peace, while Jack slowly moves from tightly controlled to wildly despairing. Here's the unnerving kicker: Stone's "redemption" might have brought him to a very frightening, dangerous place while Jack's downward spiral might be leading him towards a level of self-awareness he desperately needs. Or maybe not. The eerie uncertainty of Stone gets under your skin, as its questions linger with you long after the credits have rolled.
As you might expect given Curran's resume (The Painted Veil is a gorgeous-looking film), Stone offers a lot of compelling visuals within its rather confined spaces (a pretty sizeable portion of the movie takes place within the same simple office). The 1080/2.40:1 transfer is solid for the most part, though there are moments that seem to be slightly lacking in detail. In addition, black levels seem to fluctuate a bit throughout the film, as some darker scenes offer pristine clarity while others seem murky. The audio is very strong and takes a larger role than you might expect it to in a film like this. Though Stone is frequently a dialogue-driven film, the soundtrack takes it to some very intriguing places tonally. The score is largely ambient, ominous material that sounds very much like the sort of thing that would appear in a David Lynch film, and it adds an element of creeping terror to the proceedings during moments that might have otherwise seemed perfectly straightforward. Though no single composer is credited with providing the music for the film, most of these pieces were apparently written by composer Jon Brion along with Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead. It's effective stuff, anyway. Supplements are limited to a brief making-of featurette (6 minutes) and a trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though I realize this is a film in which we're supposed to be uncertain of why characters behave the way they do, there are moments where things seem to trip from intentional mysteries to poor characterization. Most of this comes in the way the film deals with Lucetta, who seems to be missing a couple of key scenes that might better explain her behavior. I can't help but feel that we're owed some greater resolution to the mysteries of Stone and Lucetta's marriage, but the filmmakers seem to be less interested in that relationship than in the one between Jack and Madylyn. However, this problem is somewhat offset by the raw conviction of Jovovich's performance.
There's a lot of ambiguity throughout Stone, and that continues all the way up until the final shot. If you're expecting plain answers and simple resolutions, you've come to the wrong place. I can certainly see how some viewers might start to feel like Jack after a while: "Can you just tell me what the #%*@ is going on here?"
Stone isn't the conventional potboiler the trailer may have led you to expect, but it's a very compelling film offering superb performances. If you're looking for trashy thrills, you may come away disappointed (though such thrills are indeed dispensed in moderate doses). If you're looking for a film to debate, contemplate and chew on for a while, this one comes recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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