The young husband then lurches from his recliner and rushes to the bedroom, scoops up their young daughter and dangles her out the second story window. “If you leave me, I’ll drop her. I swear to God I’ll drop her.”
Fast forward many years later and we now see the man to be parole officer ‘Jack Mabry’ (Robert DeNiro) sitting across from one of his case studies, ‘Stoney Creeson.’ ‘Stone’ (Edward Norton) is a sketchy con artist serving time for burning down his grandparents’ home – with them in it. “You wanna get outta here, you wanna walk through that door? You go through me!” ‘Jack’ barks at the case sitting at his mercy.
“Man looks on the outward appearance, God looks on the heart,” we hear on the car radio as ‘Jack’ drives home from yet another mind numbing and soul smashing day of work.
Waiting for him at home is his wife, ‘Madylyn’ (Frances Conroy from Six Feet Under), the one whose soul has been in a dungeon for all these many years. Their life together is beyond hum drum. It is void of anything real. She reads from the Bible and assembles jigsaw puzzles for comfort, he stares at television and sips whiskey.
Through the course of their protocol meetings designed to determine ‘Stone’s’ rehabilitation and remorse, can he or can he not be safely returned to society, a third-party is introduced into the equation in an attempt to shed a sympathetic light on the criminal and his fate. ‘Stone’ mentions in their conversations that he has a girl waiting for him on the outside. A “dime” played by the versatile and unpredictable Milla Jovovich. The plot thickens when this sultry temptress manages to ingratiate her way into ‘Jack’s’ geriatric domestic “dungeon.” Russian born Jovovich, now 35, just seems to get better and better every year. Equal parts charming and menace.
“How long you get to keep judging a person for one bad thing they done?” ‘Stone’ demands of ‘Jack.’ “I’ve grown a lot. I’m reborn.”
And this ‘rebirth’ is the central theme at the core of ‘Stone.’ Director John Curran laces the religious thread throughout this intense and gripping story with a masterful touch. Norton’s ‘Stone’ has a spiritual awakening in prison and discovers on the library shelf a thin book titled The Power of Zukangor. This book provides the convict a process by which he can cleanse his conscience and see his new path, an “ability to transform his surrounding into a perfect pitch – a tuning fork of God.” Heavy stuff. Not all that easy to convey on-screen but Curran interjects this story device with a confidence and understanding that the clash between good and evil is complex and multi-dimensional.
Curran wrote the supremely effective but brutally violent Michael Winterbottom film, The Killer Inside Me (2010), as well directing the uneven but earnest We Don’t Live Here Anymore (2004), a domestic squabbling drama based on a pair of short stories by the late Andre Dubus (In The Bedroom).
“What about answering for the things you’ve done in this life?” ‘Jack’ asks ‘Stone’ to which the reborn ‘Stone’ responds “I know I have…have you?” He hasn’t. ‘Jack’ has buried his demons so deep in denial he is pretty much doomed – and the film takes us down the dark road of his unraveling, all while ‘Stone’ is tuning in his pitch perfect fork and finding enlightenment.
Stone is one of those films that flew so far under the radar it never made it to your local megaplex, let alone your favorite art house screen. Budgeted at a relatively modest $22m, relative considering its star power, Stone is on record having made not even $2m domestically.
I can’t quite put my finger on why this film did not find an audience. I surely do not recall a marketing campaign which means the studio didn’t believe it would gain legs. It is not too far-fetched to assume that the heavy religious themes at the heart of Stone turned off distributors. It surely could not have been the performances. DeNiro gives one of his least sympathetic but strongest performances in years, and Norton delivers yet another thoughtful examination of the duplicity of man’s potential for good and evil.
Stone is a solid thriller with a lot to mull over. Rent it and then make a note of its director. John Curran is currently in development with Edward Norton on an HBO miniseries about Lewis & Clark. Can I get an Amen?