“Stone,” a drama that revolves around a Michigan parole officer and a convict seeking freedom, is played against a background of soothing voices preaching Gospel truths, asking questions about man and God, and offering alternatives to established beliefs and religions. Over the airwaves and in the media, a contest for minds and hearts and recruitment is being waged. Even in the maximum-security prison where parole officer Jack Mabry (Robert De Niro) works, the inmates’ library has a shelf lined with brochures and leaflets from religious groups, like a supermarket shelf for souls shopping for redemption.
One of those souls is “Stone” Creeson (Edward Norton), serving the eighth year of his 15-year sentence, and now seeking a parole. He was convicted of complicity in the murder of his grandparents as well as the arson of the couple’s home.
For his bold but sadly erratic screenplay, writer Angus MacLachlan uses a few religious themes that are well loved by preachers, gurus and priests. One theme is the role people play in each other’s lives. Another is the Psalms’ answer to anyone questioning divine wisdom: “Be still, and know that I am God.” And then there’s the basic tenet of an obscure cult that Stone finds appealing, prescribing different sounds that reverb in the soul and result in spiritual transformation.
Those are big themes that MacLachlan touches on but fails to follow through. He uses them more for the weight they give the story, much like decorations, and they recall Woody Allen’s love for philosophical musings. But while Allen weaves them brilliantly into his comedies and dramas, MacLachlan leaves it to the audience to connect the dots and leaves it at that.
The plot is exciting enough, going back decades ago, when Jack’s wife Madylyn (Frances Conroy) announces that she was leaving him for making her redundant in his life. He then scurries upstairs where their baby daughter is asleep, picks her up and threatens to throw her out of the window. Madylyn opts to stay and the couple spends a lifetime of compromise in another loveless marriage in middle-class America.
Now on the verge of retirement, Jack faces the man who will change his life, a cornrowed, tattooed and self-avowed reformed man, Stone. Their initial meeting and the several more meetings after that are good but ill-at-ease character studies of a tired old man who has nothing much more left to do in life, and a young man who wants to reclaim it.
Enter Stone’s wife Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), whom he describes as being out of this world, in fact an “alien.” She does look out of place in suburban Detroit, being bubbly, pert and conveying a cosmopolitan air despite her plain wardrobe. She is in many ways like an immigrant not from a developing country but from some sophisticated place like New York City.
It’s easy to miss the part of the movie where Stone suggests to her that she could help him win a parole by cozying up to Jack because from the start, she declares that she will do a-ny-thing for that to happen. She lays out the traps, and Jack bites. Some will find their sex scenes steamy, but others may not, for the simple reason that De Niro and Jovovich as actors and as characters are mismatched. And the movie’s suggestion that Lucetta is nursing some amorous feeling toward Jack is a lame attempt to add mystery to a wanton barter deal.
However, MacLachlan’s and director John Curran’s ploy to confuse us on whether Stone and Lucetta had been in full complicity in the seduction and humiliation of Jack nearly works. While Jake and Lucetta are busy with their bedroom massages and erogenous zone explorations, Stone starts to fall apart and turns suicidal. In a visit to the correctional institution’s infirmary, he witnesses the brutal slaying of a prison guard by some convicts. The experience could have further damaged his psyche, but it’s a different Stone that we see not long after, sane, jubilant and self-satisfied with the success of a conspiracy that he may or may not have orchestrated.
Inconsistency and shallow treatment are apparent in the other characters. An impulsive and nearly irrational man in the fine opening scene, Jack, carefully sketched by De Niro, is mostly in control of his emotions, even when he frees himself from sexual repression. His wife Madylyn, played with deep bitterness and brooding by Conroy, once had ideas of liberation but she instead became a slave of respectability. The role of bed-hopping Lucetta is more consistent, but Jovovich did not find the right stops –- and direction –- to be more than just a one-note seductress.
The redeeming points of the movie are its well-constructed ending and another, more successful attempt to give it a deeper layer. In one of the interviews at the parole officer’s office, Stone raises very relevant questions to Jack. When is punishment enough? When does it cross over to injustice? And do corrupt and corruptible people have the right to judge criminals? Like those Gospel truths riding the airwaves, they sound great but this movie’s creators needed to weigh them, put them up front in the drama and then tell the audience: sit still, we have a great movie for you. But all that is wishful thinking now.