Stone starts with a bout of domestic angst, cuts to a family funeral, then heads off to its main setting, an actual prison located within the figurative prison that is economically depressed Detroit. From there, things get a little downbeat. If movies were law firms, this pic would be a senior partner at Long, Lugubrious & Earnest.
In fact, law is the blurred blue line here. On its ostensibly right side sits Jack (Robert De Niro), a veteran parole officer on the cusp of retirement, trailing behind him a loveless marriage and a badly frayed set of religious beliefs. On the wrong side is Stone (Edward Norton), a thirtysomething inmate serving hard time for a murder rap, and pleading his case for early release. So the film is centred on the recurring dialogue between the two men, each imprisoned in different ways, each facing a changed future.
With actors of this magnitude, engaged in an ongoing cat-and-mouse conversation designed to leave us unsure about who's jerking around whom, these scenes should be electric. They aren't. The performances are plugged in, but everything else is just one big short-circuit.
So don't blame the stars. All cornrowed and tattooed for the occasion, Norton is back in Primal Fear mode, speaking in a creepy stream-of-consciousness tinged with a sneering drawl. De Niro is the embodiment of the city around him - beaten down and world-weary, yet still prone to angry eruptions, like an aged Travis Bickle who long ago traded in his cab for a crushing desk job. No, the trouble isn't with them but with a screenplay (by Angus MacLachlan) that loads their characters with too much symbolic baggage and then points them off in obscure directions.
Even director John Curran seems puzzled. At the outset, like us, he thinks this is a noirish genre film. You've got the seasoned con and the seen-it-all screw - the "stone" and the hard place. What's more, you've also got the sultry moll. That's the con's wife Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), who's recruited by her hubby to do on the outside what he's trying to do inside - seduce Jack into approving his release. Turns out ol' Jack, after some nominal resistance, is delighted to let the moll do her sexy work on him. Not that his own neglected spouse seems to care: She's too busy pounding back the booze with one hand and thumping the Bible with the other.
And that's where God enters the equation. He's the static in the air, nattered about on the Christian radio station that gives the picture its background noise, and then addressed directly in those central colloquies. There, inspired by a prison pamphlet, Stone looks to be gaining what Jack has lost - a sense of the cosmic purpose, of having his ear attuned to a divine pulse. "We are all God's co-workers," he preaches, "and we don't even know it." Or is this just another of the con's cons?
Well, you can see the metaphoric baggage piling up. The equally flawed men, lawbreaker and law enforcer, are there to symbolize (in some vague yet awfully significant fashion) a creeping moral and social and, yes, religious rot. All the planks have decayed and the foundation is crumbling.
Okay, but there are two problems with this fat insight: a) It's trite; and b) It drains the fun from the movie. The film sets up the noir icons but then, in its search for deep meaning, squeezes all the juice out of them. No wonder these guys seems so static and lifeless, neither credible as characters nor convincing as symbols.
The semi-exception is Jovovich's moll. We don't really believe in her either, but at least the gal radiates some heat, flashing her gams and her cleavage and reminding us of better times in shallower flicks. Alas, in the firm of Long, Lugubrious & Earnest, she's merely the fetching receptionist in the foyer - behind her it's just a dull expanse of grey.
- Directed by John Curran
- Written by Angus MacLachlan
- Starring Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Milla Jovovich
- Classification: 18A