Director: John Curran
Starring: Robert DeNiro, Edward Norton, Milla Jovovich, Frances Conroy
Review: 4.5 stars (of five)
Edward Norton goes large, stretching his acting style to play a philosophical convict trying to earn parole. He starts out almost a caricature, a comedy piece, and slowly, subtly pulls you in with a touching search for truth and, dare I type it, wisdom. Then there’s Robert DeNiro, entirely shut down as Norton’s parole officer, a tired, cynical paper-pusher on the edge of retirement. You’ve got two great actors grappling with each other, almost entirely in two chairs across one cluttered, institutional desk.
The issue at play is the question Norton’s character, Stone, asks DeNiro as he tries to prove he’s ready to be let out: “What makes you different from me? Are you telling me you’ve never done anything wrong?”
“Well, I’ve never been convicted of a crime,” a supercilious and condescending DeNiro replies. Yet by the time this exchange occurs, we have an idea that DeNiro isn’t the upright man he’s meant to be. The film opens with one example, years earlier, that suggests dark depths to the man. There but for the grace of screenwriter restraint goes Travis Bickle, you know? And we meet Norton, his hair in cornrows, and learn that he apparently burned down his grandparents’ house—with them in it. Yet he’s struggling with morality and a quest for righteousness, and DeNiro … This is a man who, presumably, has been a “good man” without ever truly being a good man.
So who’s the righteous man? Who’s the worthier man? Who should be judging whom?
This is a quiet little character-driven exploration of sin and redemption that builds to a confrontation, outside the prison walls, between Norton and DeNiro. And that’s when we find out who’s the righteous man. That’s it—just some character work, an interest in the human condition, in the world we inhabit. And it works.
The women in the film are compelling as well. Milla Jovovich delivers a surprisingly good turn as Stone’s wife (how he went up as a teenager and manages now, in at least his early 30s, to have this downmarket hottie for a mostly devoted wife is just a little hard to fathom). She’s eager to help him assure DeNiro that parole’s a good idea. At the same time, Frances Conroy, as DeNiro’s wife, brings the sort of understated suffering that Patricia Clarkson portrayed brilliantly this year in Cairo Time. The four-character film fails the Bechdel test, because it’s very much a story about the two men, but the women still bring a lot of weight to the screen.
In substance and tone, the result of Angus MacLachlan’s quiet, questioning script and John Curran’s taut, low-key direction feels similar to last year’s brilliant Coen Brothers’ work, A Serious Man. They’re not the same film by a long shot, but it’s fair to say that if the pacing and moral discussion of the Coen film engaged you, this one will, too.
Stone is a worthwhile journey in the company of two of the best actors working today.