Stone is a strange little movie with big stars. Two days after seeing it, I’m still not sure whether it’s a hackneyed tale of Catholic guilt dressed up in fancy filmmaking, or something more original. Two things are for sure: (1) don’t come expecting a rousing climax; and (2) don’t miss the first 10 minutes.
The film’s opening is crucial because, like many novels and very few movies, it starts with an event that tells us nothing about the main plot and everything about the main characters. Back in the 1970s, a young couple seem to be enjoying a placid day in their rural Michigan home. Suddenly the wife (Pepper Binkley), taut with emotion, announces she’s leaving her husband (Enver Gjokaj) because he’s “keeping [her] soul in a cage.” At that, her mild-mannered spouse rises from his lounger and makes a threat so horrifying it suffices to keep his wife in her place beside him for the next 30-odd years.
When we next see this couple, they’ve become Robert De Niro and Frances Conroy. He, still mild-mannered to the point of fading into the woodwork, is about to retire from his job as a parole officer at the nearby penitentiary. She appears to spend her days seeking solace in the Bible and the bottle.
But, of course, we know from the teaser (and from the casting of De Niro) that Jack Mabry isn’t really mild-mannered. He has something smoldering within. The person who arrives with gasoline is Gerald “Stone” Creeson (Edward Norton), a convicted accessory to murder in search of parole.
It’s a Sean Penn role. Nasal voiced and volatile, part clown and part psycho, the convict works on Jack’s sympathies, trying to figure out what motivates the stoic man who controls his fate. But Stone’s beautiful, wily wife Lucetta (Milla Jovovich) has better luck with Jack.
Scripted by Angus (Junebug) MacLachlan and based on his play, this is basically a four-character hothouse drama, and all four performances are memorable. Even Jovovich, mainly known these days for modeling and killing CG zombies, does such a nasty turn as a smiling sociopath that someone should line her up for a remake of The Last Seduction.
Her character’s motives remain hazy, however — is Lucetta actually Lucifer, sent from eternal fires to tempt Jack, or just a messed-up girl? Christian radio chatter and other religious motifs wind in and out of the action, along with ominous music and a repeated buzzing sound that could be meaningless static or the source of a mystical epiphany (as Norton’s character argues) or the voice of the Lord of the Flies himself. Director John Curran goes overboard on moody slow-mo montages and portents of damnation, as if trying to out-Paul Schrader Paul Schrader. (The director’s influence seems to hover over this film, since he also scripted De Niro’s defining slow-burn role in Taxi Driver.)
Yet the film’s developments remain startling, the meaning of all those portents unclear. Like a Flannery O’Connor story, Stone seems to work from a devout but highly skeptical perspective, suggesting we should trust neither righteousness nor revelation when filtered through human eyes.
The story’s conclusion offers no hint of grace. But it’s just ragged and odd enough to provoke thought — and, among Oscar-season flicks with their predictable appeals to predictable ideals, that’s something I value.