Robert DeNiro and Edward Norton join forces in a psychological drama about good and bad people–and the difficulty in telling the difference. This review originally appeared at Christianity Today Movies and TV.
Director John Curran made two perhaps inadvertently telling comments to the Toronto Film Festival audience following the festival screening of Stone. He said that when Edward Norton originally read the script, he passed on playing the title character with the comment that he “just didn’t see it.” Later, after Robert DeNiro agreed to play the title role, Norton reconsidered. Also, Curran mentioned that the film’s near constant use of Christian talk-back radio as part of the soundtrack was a late addition because the director felt that DeNiro is a very closed actor who didn’t reveal much about his character’s internal mental or emotional landscape and Curran couldn’t find music that would cue the audience into what Jack (DeNiro’s character) was thinking and feeling.
I bring up these two comments not necessarily because the line between subtle and muddled is a particularly thin one but rather because I suspect a lot of the film’s defenders will accuse me of being on the wrong side of it. C.S. Lewis once opined—I believe it was in response to the tired question about whether God could make a rock so big that He couldn’t move it—that rhetorical nonsense doesn’t become sense just by inserting the word “God” into a sentence. The Stone corollary might be that asking questions that are in their essence religious in nature doesn’t necessarily transform something muddled into something insightful. Sometimes it just results in muddled ideas about religious or spiritual subjects.
DeNiro plays Jack Mabry, a parole instructor on the verge of retirement who once responded to his wife saying she wanted to leave him by threatening to kill their child if she ever tried to do so—or even mentioned it again. Norton is Gerald “Stone” Creeson, one of the last inmates for whom Jack will have to write a report recommending for or against parole. Perhaps sensing a core of sexual frustration or perhaps just fishing for some sort of blackmail leverage, Stone encourages his wife to contact Jack outside of the prison and see if there’s anything she might do to help Stone’s chances at parole. While Jack is dealing with his own temptations and failings, Stone begins reading and parroting information about an alternative religion that claims focusing on small sounds is the first step towards becoming God’s tuning forks. (Curran made it a point in the discussion to emphasize that the book Stone reads and the religious practices he adopts were entirely made up for the film.)
DeNiro’s acting credentials are unimpeachable, but the film seems to rely more on his persona—the personality an actor brings to a film based on his association with other roles—than on his performance. None of the actors are bad, really, and Jovovich does probably her best work ever, but they don’t seem to be in synch with each other or the script. You can have three great musicians, but if each of them and their conductor has a different piece of music the result isn’t generally harmonious. It is one thing to keep the audience in suspense because we don’t know which way a conflicted character is going to go; it is quite another thing to keep the audience in suspense by giving it conflicting sketches of who the characters are. Lucetta is a bit of a cipher—she has to cycle through multiple personalities to find what will push Jack’s buttons and so we get a sense of the game she is playing but no real sense of the woman who is playing it. Jack’s wife will chastise him in one scene for using the lord’s name in vain and then spout new age babble about how we are all descended from rocks in the next. Jack himself is supposed to be a smoldering cauldron of anger capable of anything but his demeanor is more sullen and defeated than lively or feisty.
The fact that Jack’s two most overt acts of anger are both directed at women tends to make him come across as little more than a garden variety bully. To the extent the film works at all on a thematic level it is to the extent that it successfully manipulates the audience into complicity with Jack’s hypocrisy by inviting us, with our own imperfections, not just to recognize another’s flaws but to long for their punishment. Had the film ever invited or even allowed us to identify with anyone in it long enough to consider the danger inherent in judging another too legalistically, I might have admired it more. Instead, Stone seems to care more about keeping us guessing about what the characters are going to do than it does about making us care what is going to happen to them if and when they do it.