Film Review: Stone

A prisoner and parole officer grapple with sins and the need for redemption in this subtle drama of parallel lives.

When watching Stone, you can actually hear the silence. In the opening scene, something very bad is happening, but without musical cues, the hushed sound amplifies the terror and suspense. Rendering the audience deaf makes for a profoundly alienating experience, but one that throws the emotions in relief. Silence and elision turn out to play a big part in director John Curran’s (The Painted Veil) ambitious Stone, which juxtaposes the lives of a prisoner and parole officer, blending the duo’s actions into a beguiling gray mixture. Content with ambiguity, Curran creates a canvas for questions, not answers.

In the mostly quiet opening scene, we see a young woman try to leave her husband, and his reaction: holding their child out the bedroom window, commanding her to stay. When he embraces her after she acquiesces, in terror, it’s like being sucker-punched. Seeing an act of violence followed up with such an incompatible emotion, love, has never come across as so twisted.

Flash-forward a few decades, the couple resides in the same home, one that has preserved the same décor after all these years. Jack (Robert De Niro) is a parole officer on the verge of retirement. Madylyn (Frances Conroy), the wife, is blank-faced and compliant, but shows the strain of her years of pretending.

One of Jack’s last cases is the cornrowed criminal “my friends call me Stone” (Edward Norton), who chafes at the parole process and has a laughably vulgar way of communicating. De Niro is entirely at home playing a suave authority figure (in fact, at this point his performance is reminiscent of another Jack he played in Meet the Parents). Jack’s control over the interview feels extraordinarily real, especially because there are a few points where we can see Stone break through his façade—a sign of things to come. Stone and Jack have both done wrong, but one’s in jail and the other’s passing judgment. Where is the justice in that?

Norton’s performance, sadly, leaves something to be desired. He begins with an odd Detroit white-gangster accent that he doesn’t fully own. As his dreadlocks disappear, the accent recedes, and he becomes more believable. While all the lead characters have some enigmatic qualities, Norton’s performance doesn’t suggest the iceberg beneath as much as the work of De Niro or Milla Jovovich, who plays Stone’s wife, Lucetta.

Jovovich delivers a stunning performance as a dangerous, mesmerizing woman who ensnares Jack in a ploy to help Stone. At her most persuasive, she lowers her voice to a ghostly whisper packed with feminine charm, making her the most riveting femme fatale to hit the screen in some time. Stone calls his wife an “alien,” but a chameleon might be more apt: Her expressions can take on the guise of a wide-eyed child, cute girl-next-door, or coldly powerful sexual being. Her character does not go through as much of an arc as Jack or Stone’s, but she hypnotizes all the same.

At one point in the interview process, Jack skeptically questions Stone after he says he’s been reborn. Does Stone really know what that means? The question sets off a search for religion, and Stone ends up having a genuine conversion after taking to Zukangor, a religion described in a pamphlet he finds in the prison library. Jack’s faith, by contrast, is stuck, and his lonely drives are peppered with Christian talk radio that only seems to reinforce the solitary path he leads as an unbeliever.

As their respective faiths rise and wane, Stone and Jack both reach moments that will test their capacity for violence. Even as the final act plays out, their actions feel unpredictable and cannot be fully explained. Not finding out what makes them tick provides a satisfaction in its own right, thanks to the rich, suggestive gaps provided within the movie. Curran is not afraid to extend the pauses in a conversation between Jack and his wife, or turn down the sound and add aural gymnastics to a pivotal scene, giving the audience more room to think about an action instead of purely experiencing it. Stone may lose viewers who want more answers than the movie is willing to give, but so be it. Keeping the monster in shadows, as they say in horror movies, makes for a more thrilling experience.