As a thespian duel between two heavyweights, John Curran’s film has a good deal to recommend it. But in dramatic terms, “Stone” leaves a lot to be desired. This is material that cries out for a garish, feverish approach, but instead it’s played as a somber character study.
The title is the nickname of Michigan prison inmate Gerald Creeson (Edward Norton), who was convicted of complicity in the murder of his grandparents by a cousin. (He claims only to have torched the house to conceal the crime.) Creeson’s up for parole, and part of the process is a series of interviews with corrections official Jack Mabry (Robert De Niro). The conversations turn into a psychological contest between the men, and Creeson ups the ante by encouraging his wife, a sexpot named Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), to get in touch with Mabry and, to be blunt about it, seduce him, forcing him to hand in a favorable assessment to the parole board.
There are some interesting character touches here, provided by Angus MacLachlan’s script and amplified in the performances of Norton and De Niro. The younger man first presents himself as a scabrous redneck, mumbling crudities within his pleas for understanding, but gradually molds himself into the more reflective person he knows that Mabry will find more sympathetic; and undergoes—or at least pretends to have undergone—a religious experience occasioned by an act of prison violence, something he divines that his interrogator will appreciate. Norton clearly relishes the opportunity to play the con-man again (as he did in his career-making turn in “Primal Fear”), and delivers an intriguing performance, full of intriguing tics—even if his vocal tricks leave some of the dialogue difficult to decipher.
Mabry, by contrast, appears on the surface to be gruffly professional—and rightly suspicious of the men who come before him for assessment. But in reality—as we see in a prologue in which, as a young husband, he stopped his wife from leaving him by threatening to kill their infant daughter—he’s a man simmering with potential violence, who keeps his wife Madylyn (Frances Conroy) under his thumb with a combination of threats and religion. He’s a complicated figure, and De Niro suggests how facets of his personality are at war with one another, as in a scene set at his retirement party where, having had too much to drink, he comes on to his young, pretty replacement and is infuriated when rebuffed. But frankly the employment of fundamentalist belief as a lynchpin of his character seems rather a cliché, and De Niro can’t do much with it.
Still, the interplay between the two men is frequently compelling, particularly because as MacLachlan constructs their conversations, much of the meaning is beneath the surface. Where the picture stumbles is in the seduction subplot, which comes across as dramatically strained from every perspective. Jovovich, moreover, doesn’t come close to matching either of her co-stars; but then the role of a calculating vamp doesn’t really allow her to.
One can imagine “Stone” working as a piece of pulp, the sort of seedy, shady stuff that Jim Thompson might have written. But MacLachlan hasn’t written it that way, and Curran’s moody, deliberate approach, reflected in Maryse Alberti’s somber cinematography, Alexandre De Franceschi’s subdued editing and Jon Brion’s atmospheric score, certainly doesn’t treat it as such. This is the sort of story that could have benefited from a more robust, extroverted, even vulgar treatment than the serious, even solemn one it gets here. “Stone” could have had the gleefully over-the-top energy of “Primal Fear,” which would have made it less self-important and stylistically genteel, but a lot more fun to watch.