A parole officer finds himself a month or so from retirement. He’s got a clean record, a quiet home life, does everything by the book. Old school, some would call him. Beneath his button-up shirt and military haircut, however, there is a darkness. It’s buried, almost invisible to his peers, but there it is—a black abscess, an Achilles heel—on display before an arsonist looking for a little leverage, a way to get out of jail free. Stone, a grey, quiet, drab movie about the parole officer’s darkness and the arsonist’s cunning, seems like the least likely film to feature a breakout performance, especially considering that the cop is Robert De Niro and the prisoner is Edward Norton, but Millla Jovovich, as the eponymous prisoner’s wife, breezes into the movie and steals the show.
Robert De Niro: Jack Mabry
Edward Norton: Gerald "Stone" Creeson
Milla Jovovich: Lucetta Creeson
Madylyn Mabry: Frances Conroy
Far Fucking Out
In a lot of ways, this makes complete sense. Stone, regardless of its two leads, treads dangerously familiar ground for a psychological thriller. One man pits his brain against another man’s brain, searches him for any conceivable flaw, the list of possible flaws including old chestnuts like money, power, paranoia, women, or some shameful event in the mark’s past. Usually, the script double dips and gives the sucker two of these flaws—a guy who loves money loves to spend that money on women, usually women who aren’t the man’s wife. It’s possible to plug any two good actors into the role of con-man and mark and have an acceptable psychological thriller, and it just so happens that De Niro and Norton are both tremendous actors capable of bringing life to almost any script they read. The trick, however, is to have an interesting MacGuffin. If it’s a woman, as it is in Stone, she’s got to hold her weight. Jovovich does more than that. By the end of the film, hers is the only character left worth caring about.
This also makes complete sense. Regardless of how you feel about them at any point in time during the story, Stone (Norton) and Jack (De Niro) aren’t the kind of people you root for. The first scene, a flashback, shows Jack to be a catatonic sort a zombie before a TV. His wife threatens to leave him. He explodes, runs up to the second floor of their house, and dangles his daughter out the window. There aren’t any hints in Stone that he’s done something worse than that over the ensuing years, but it’s obvious that he’s smoldering, just waiting for something to set him off. Until then, it’s the same routine everyday: Wake up, go to work, go to the liquor store, drink self to sleep. Stone isn’t much better. He’s a convicted arsonist who wants out of jail, and his every action, his every word is crafted with that goal in mind. He’s obviously pushing Jack’s buttons vainly, hoping to find the right one. He studies the religions. All of them. He has cordial conversations. He tells his wife (Jovovich) to meet with Jack outside the confines of your typical, non-existent parole officer/wife of prisoner relationship. Stone converts to a religion called Zukangor, which posits that life is a series of responses to plucked strings. It seems awful relevant to Jack’s situation with Lucetta, who is trying to seduce him. Maybe too relevant. But it’s hard to tell if Stone is really a convert to Zukangor or if he’s just going through the motions, hoping to play Jack as a religious sap.
The movie does nothing but smolder, and much of it revolves around Jovovich’s Lucetta, who, it seems, is willing to do anything if it means seeing her husband free from prison. She married him only a few months before he was locked up, has hook-ups with a few men, but still makes the visits and is willing to seduce a dead-eyed old man like Jack. The situation makes Jack’s home life with his wife Madylyn (Frances Conroy) all the more tense. He starts drinking more. She starts quoting more scripture. Lucetta genuinely appears to want Jack, who stays out with her later and later. Meanwhile Stone enters an almost meditative state. He’s uninvolved in prison life in every way but proximity and sees Jack for what he is.
But, in the end, it’s hard to say exactly who Stone or even Lucetta are or what they represent for Jack, who doesn’t so much fall apart so much as he shuts himself in for an imagined siege. Though you can see Jack’s fuse burning, though you can see the look of Stone’s eyes, and though you can feel Lucetta’s warmth, these elements don’t converge at the center to become something more than a study of three very different human beings. Their lives don’t intersect, even though the plot of the movie says that they must. Without a true sense of connection, the fuse continues to burn in vain. Even when it reaches the bomb, by the looks of things, it’ll be a dud.