Aided by a pair of dead-on lead performances from Robert De Niro and Edward Norton, director John Curran takes the high road with a Jerry Springer-ready “My girlfriend slept with my parole officer!” scenario, elevating “Stone” beyond the “Primal Fear” redux suggested by its cast (Norton once again plays a prisoner attempting to manipulate the system). Though nearly sabotaged by the ridiculous sexual subplot at its center, this soul-searching drama works best at the character level, couching insights about sin and forgiveness under the guise of conventional genre entertainment. With this cast, “Stone” should gather greenbacks on the specialty circuit.
“Stone” opens with an unsettling domestic scene, as corrections officer Jack Mabry (seen here as a young man, but later played by De Niro) responds to his wife’s divorce request by threatening the life of their infant daughter. Cut to the present day: The couple has somehow carried on the charade of their loveless marriage. Though the characters reveal no memory of that pivotal confrontation, the cloud of Mabry’s actions hangs over the rest of the film, implying a capacity for genuine evil.
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Ironic, then, that this man who has never atoned for his own sins should find himself a parole officer, playing confessor to repentant criminals. With retirement just days away, Mabry insists on finishing up his last few cases, including a white-trash type named Gerald Creeson (Norton), aka “Stone,” who torched his grandparents’ house after an accomplice killed the old couple — an “In Cold Blood”-worthy crime for which Creeson shows no regret.
Creeson badly wants out of prison, and he’s willing to say or do whatever it takes to get early release, even if it means talking his g.f., Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), into seducing the stoic old cop. It’s a development that all but destroys “Stone’s” much-needed sense of plausibility; the idea of using sexual favors for leverage is cheap potboiler stuff and feels out of character for all the players involved. Mabry may be a chauvinist, but he’s no dummy, and Creeson may be a dummy, but he’s not that masochistic.
The more interesting relationship is the one between Mabry and his wife (a cowed Frances Conroy), which seems to exist in a state of suspended dysfunction. To his credit, Curran downplays the more melodramatic aspects of the script, avoiding the operatic in favor of a more introspective approach. The script reps another closely observed Middle American portrait from “Junebug” scribe Angus MacLachlan, confirming him as a writer with a novelist’s keen sense of character.
The actors have ample opportunity to dig deep here, with De Niro playing a bottled-up monster who’s all the more frightening for what he doesn’t let show. Curran augments this inner disturbance by enlisting docu-trained d.p. Maryse Alberti (“The Wrestler”), who uses a more unbalanced shooting style around Mabry, and sound pros Eugene Gearty (“The Aviator”) and Skip Lievsay (“No Country for Old Men”). The latter pair helps texture the film with a sophisticated, mostly subjective aural wallpaper, overcrowded with the white noise of Mabry’s world — a mix dominated by evangelical Christian talkradio.
Religion factors prominently in both the Mabrys’ lives and Creeson’s get-out-of-jail scheme (the inmate investigates an obscure faith called Zukangor, hoping it will help with his parole, only to be blind-sided by an unexpected, honest-to-God religious experience behind bars). Mabry has worked the parole beat long enough to spot the con men among these convicts, so it’s only natural that he should suspect Creeson’s conversion. And by casting Norton (who appeared in Curran’s last film, “The Painted Veil”), the director instantly sows distrust for those who saw the actor’s career-making turn as a scammer in “Primal Fear.”
The trouble is, though we can tell what Curran is going for when Mabry starts to melt down, the director doesn’t calibrate the tension and tone correctly, which compromises each of De Niro’s outbursts — from the opening one (tipped oddly off-balance by the decision to highlight a wasp on the scene’s periphery) to a drunken, dark-alley confrontation near the end of the film. De Niro convincingly demonstrates his character’s short temper and capacity for violence, though much of what the film does to provoke him rings false, especially Lucetta’s seduction — a misuse of Jovovich, who clearly wants to give a more serious performance than “Stone” is ready to allow.
Lured to Michigan by tax credits, the pic benefits from its fresh Middle American backdrop. Combined with the unique sound design, Jon Brion’s score helps to give the drama an unsettling psychological intensity.