Combustible Celluloid
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With: Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Milla Jovovich, Frances Conroy, Enver Gjokaj, Pepper Binkley, Sandra Love Aldridge, Greg Trzaskoma, Rachel Loiselle, Kylie Tarnopol, Bailey Tarnopol, Madison Tarnopol, Peter Lewis, Sarab Kamoo
Written by: Angus MacLachlan
Directed by: John Curran
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexuality and violence, and pervasive language
Running Time: 105
Date: 09/10/2010

Stone (2010)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Pros and Cons

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In the early moments of Stone, it gives off the impression that it's really here as a vehicle for Robert De Niro and Edward Norton -- last seen together in The Score (2001) -- to show off their best stuff. Some of their scenes play like superb audition tapes. But as the movie warms up and settles into place, it becomes clear that there's much more going on here than just actors' egos.

De Niro plays Jack, a parole officer who works inside the prison, interviewing convicts to determine if they're ready for the outside world. His latest case is Stone (Norton), a cornrowed charmer with a raspy, streetwise voice. Stone is about ready to crack and will do anything to get out. This includes calling up his beautiful wife Lucetta (Milla Jovovich) and coaxing her to rub up against Jack.

That would be the stuff of a routine thriller, but what actually happens in Stone is quite unexpected. Stone begins searching for something -- anything -- to help him survive on the inside, and he comes across a pamphlet. It describes a new kind of religion that's all about listening. If you listen hard enough, you can hear God in all the sounds of the world. Stone struggles with the unholy noises of the prison, but eventually he finds a kind of peace; each time he visits Jack, his cornrows are a little looser.

Screenwriter Angus MacLachlan (Junebug) and director John Curran (We Don't Live Here Anymore, The Painted Veil) are smart enough to keep going with this idea. Jack and his wife Madylyn (Frances Conroy) are heavily religious, reading the Bible at the dinner table, and listening to Christian talk radio in the car. Yet their lives are practically comatose; years earlier Jack threatened to throw their baby daughter out the window if Madylyn left, so they stayed together, their relationship proceeding from this sick, sour place. The filmmakers cross this stuff with Stone's new "listening" religion without driving home the point: all the talking and talking of Christianity doesn't ever seem to find a point of purchase, but merely shutting up and listening can change the world. Moreover, Jack doesn't ever appear to listen to Stone; his training leads him to believe that he, Jack, is a good and righteous and moral person and that Stone is not.

And yet the movie goes further. It crosses these religious themes with themes of the flesh. Stone insists on discussing sex with Jack during their sessions; he mentions that Lucetta will do anything for him, and wants to know what Jack's sex life is like. Jack won't talk, but Madylyn has a brief line later in the film that lets us know "Jack is definitely not wild." When Lucetta manages to seduce Jack, it shatters his world in more ways than one. He has crossed the line at work. He has sinned against his God. Nothing is ever the same again. He visits a priest at one point to talk about his lack of faith, but the priest is unable to really listen or help. Only Lucetta listens; she's by far the most sensual creature in the film, and she flat out doesn't believe in God. "Hell no!" she answers the question, perhaps ironically.

With the help of some highly textured cinematography by Maryse Alberti (The Wrestler), MacLachlan and Curran juggle these ideas beautifully, again and again, over the course of the film's 105 minutes, mixing them with other weighty ideas (including one about fire as a creation and a destructor). Thankfully the rudimentary plotline that would have Lucetta blackmailing Jack never really comes about. Jack carries a gun, but unlike that old rule about showing a gun in a movie, Jack is too shut down and locked in to ever manage a discharge.

It goes without saying that, given an intelligent and graceful backdrop like this, both Norton and De Niro give top-notch performances. In De Niro's case, it's his best in years, perhaps since Jackie Brown. And of course, Conroy is a gifted and underused actress as well. But the real surprise here is the depth of Jovovich's performance. After a career in Resident Evil films, she turns up playing something of a manipulative airhead, but with a clear idea of who she is and what she wants, sometimes ahead of the game and sometimes a little behind. She's by turns appealing and horrible and heartbreaking.

Stone will be a hard sell to audiences -- it's too difficult to explain exactly what it is -- and I imagine it may be too complex for the Oscars as well (it practically demands a second viewing). But if you're jonesing for something unusually smart and deep, Stone has kick-started the fall season with a vengeance.

Anchor Bay released the Blu-Ray in 2011, with a making-of featurette and a trailer.

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