Stone (2010) is a peculiar film, one that contains moments of strong performances and interesting plot points but fails to bring everything together in a completely satisfying way. Calculated and at times ineffectively slow, the emotional volatility of the characters feels needlessly confined as though the extended metaphor of pent-up feelings and restricted actions are carried on far too long to respect the governance of the cinematic experience. Other reviews have noted that the film was first a play and it is apparent. This is a prison story told in effect in three locations – the prison, the parole officer’s home, and briefly, if not bit by bit at the apartment of the convict’s wife. The film fails to cover enough ground, both literally and figuratively and suffers because of it. There is a Prolog that sets up the parole officer’s back story but it comes across as awkward, stiff as though it were an afterthought or worse, an obvious plot device that only serves to connect the ending with one of those ‘ah-ha’ moments M. Night Shymalan, among others, have built a career upon. No one seems affected by the heated atmosphere from Angus MacLauchlan’s (Junebug) script or John Curran’s (The Painted Veil, We Don’t Live Here Anymore) direction, as though the weight of the talented cast was relied upon to fill in the void of weak story and only rudimentarily defined characters. By the end of the film the tension and back and forth face time between Robert De Niro (Jack) and Edward Norton (Stone) have all but faded as final act is served up predictably cold.
Stone might have been more successful had the filmmakers maintained the intensity first felt as Jack arrives to work and we discover that he is a parole officer, the use of sound and cinematography – we know that this is going to be a story about internalized feelings and stunted action. The film feels caged in, intentionally so, but rather than give us a tactile sense of confinement – both parole officer and inmate exist in a kind of stalemate – the film resorts to an exaggerated, overly stylized performance from Norton that gets in the way rather than feels inspired or otherwise truthful. De Niro is flat and uninteresting; the weight he carries in his shoulders rounds any edges. There are moments that appear, if ever so briefly, of De Niro’s fueled and memorable characters; Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) and Max Cady (Cape Fear) but he never quite reaches beyond a retiring parole officer with a dark moment from his past spotting what seems like an otherwise boring, middle class life. It is refreshing to find Milla Jovovich (The Fifth Element, Resident Evil franchise) in a more emotionally developed character here. She makes the most of every scene, her striking good looks and inviting charm cools the temperate vixen beneath and serves her role as the convict’s wife with a range that often overshadows her co-stars with a believability that belies many of her more one-dimensional action-adventure characters.
Stone feels too much like Dead Man Walking (1995) with the long, twisted road of a criminal coming to terms with and ultimately taking responsibility for his actions. In the case of Sean Penn’s Matthew Poncelet, his end is a death sentence released to some degree by admission and acceptance of the consequences of his actions. Norton’s Stone gets off too easily and conveniently, his transformation uncertain. Penn appears hardened from years behind bars, burdened by his eminent death sentence as well as what he did buried beneath layers of guilt, remorse, and anger. Norton’s motivation is to use his wife as a get out of jail free card and while there exists a sense that he is truly conflicted it is impossible to be certain that he’s not simply a ‘con’ doing, as De Niro’s character says in the film, “running another con on me.”
While Norton should be noted for his efforts, for his lines rapid fire, what he says is rehashed from any number of prisons stories from any number of films of the past decade. His character comes across as unnecessarily jumbled and wired on caffeine or some jailhouse concoction of manufactured strength and deep-seated pain for a life gone wrong. Norton’s inevitable transformation is too much snake oil salesman and not enough emotional gravity, words in place of actual dialog and interaction. Norton’s scenes with De Niro feel more like an infomercial where they’re selling caricatures of themselves in miniature, fake smiles and ‘ah-pisha’ and all.
I wanted to like this film but from the onset, it felt contrived and unnecessarily so. The premise is sound enough, even interesting, but Curran never fully gets the emotions right like his film We Don’t Live Here Anymore where the actors, vested in their interwoven lives of jagged lies and half-truths, are genuine. Even Curran’s previous work with Norton in The Painted Veil feels like he had spent half a lifetime working on the details of character and the nuance of the innermost love and loathing between people. Maybe Stone ultimately proved too small a canvas for Curran or the hackneyed script too restricting or the actors simply arrived, delivered, and went home without getting down to brass tacks.
Stone is a movie that relies on the cast to prop up the otherwise weak plot and unrealized emotional, psychological, and religious undertones that fuel interesting but incomplete characters. As is, the movie feels unfinished, as if we are just beginning to get to who these characters are when the proverbial climactic rug is prematurely pulled out from under us. There has been a lot of lip service about the performances in this film but it is impossible for some to separate the actor from their work and as a result, undue favoritism gets in the way of seeing the flaws in the film and story. A problematic film just as easily derails talented actors, as lesser actors are lost in the voluminous details of a great script.