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Non-Review Review: Stone

Stone began its life as a play. You get a sense of that watching the film – the only points during which it seems to come especially alive is when its two leads, Robert deNiro and Edward Norton, are playing off against each other. Both actors are genuinely great performers who have faded from the spotlight in recent years and, while the film isn’t consistent enough to put either back on the map, it does demonstrate some of the talent involved.

A Stone-cold killer?

Stone is a curious cocktail. It’s part religious and moral fable about how we’re all deeply flawed human beings, but it’s also trying to be a tense psychological thriller with three key players all trying to manipulate one another. The movie might take its title from Norton’s character, a prisoner who has served eight years of his ten-to-fifteen and is looking to get out on good behaviour. It may also take its name from the belief outlined on a religious pamphlet (“junk mail”) which suggests that each human soul begins its existence as a stone and much work its way up to being human. That belief would, however, presuppose that there is some base level of decency in human beings – that we have “earned” the right to be human through centuries of growth and development.

The basic plot sees Stone, a man convicted as accessory to the manslaughter of his grandparents and for the arson of their house, attempting to earn parole. He plays off Jack Mabry, his correctional officer, even asking his wife to try to persuade the man who is one month away from a nice retirement. At this point, the lines between Stone’s manipulations and genuine personal interactions begin to blur – and we wonder what, if anything, is genuine and what is staged. Things are compounded when Stone has something akin to a religious epiphany as time draws on.

I'm on the fence about this one...

The truth is that the two leads work well with one another. Norton is great as the white trash criminal offender and deNiro is effective as the grizzled old pencil-pusher who is just going through the motions because he doesn’t know what else to do. Both are thoroughly unlikable characters, but it’s fun to watch them play off each other as they each attempt to adopt the moral high ground. Their scenes apart aren’t nearly as effective, but this affects deNiro more. While he shows hints of his talent at its prime, there’s more than a few scenes where he does his trademark “Robert deNiro is unhappy” face (which was perfected as his default expression around Meet the Parents), without any specific nuance or unique aspect.

And the problem is that, while the movie works well while the two leads are in the same room, it doesn’t work too well following Jack on his own. There’s a nice and deeply unpleasant atmosphere provided by the religious talk radio show that Mabry listens to (“All Voices Under God”), which reflects a lot of the repression that one associates with hardline Christianity – the belief that we are all sinners and, even if we never sin, we’re still going to hell. The movie suggests that Mabry’s pious nature is just an act he puts on, which probably makes it seem even more scary – he seldom drops it throughout the film, even leaving a conversation with stone’s wife after she states that she doesn’t believe in God.

Hard to lock down...

The problem with the movie is fairly straightforward. It counts of smart characters making extremely stupid decisions. That’s the flaw right there. The opening sequence makes it fairly clear that Mabry isn’t a nice person, but he always seems shrewd and effective. Some of the actions he takes seem downright silly – the audience can see the consequences coming at least a mile down the track, and yet they seem to creep up on him. It’s a fairly large suspension of disbelief, and one I had difficulty making.

Outside of that, the film isn’t really sure what it wants to be, especially once it moves past Stone and Mabry talking together in a room about the nature of guilt and sin. Is it a morality tale about the things that Jack has done and the person he really is? Is it a thriller about a potentially dangerous individual conning his way out of prison? It is both of these to an extent, but not in any major way and certainly not exclusively. The film just seems to unfold almost randomly, without a clear idea of what it is or what it’s doing.

Somebody looks Stoned...

Still, it’s a movie starring Edward Norton and Robert deNiro, both of whom are showing hints of talents that are always well worth watching. The movie is a bit of a jumbled mess, but there are sparks when you put those two charged actors up against each other. I’m not entirely sure it’s enough to illuminate the rest of the movie, but it’s certainly something.

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