Re-pairing The Score duo Edward Norton and Robert DeNiro in a pseudo-religious, erotic prison-thriller about the spiraling results of ethically bad decisions, all wrapped in a vaguely foreboding atmosphere sounds like the sort of thing that could turn out extremely interestingly. It very nearly does. Unfortunately, Stone spins its tires in the thick mud of its own grim tone and thickly symbolic plot turns, never gaining traction in the way other successful films of similar texture have.
First of all, you would be right to hope for an electric display of acting, with a reinvigorated performance from DeNiro as he tackles a thick, juicy role as a parole adviser named Jack in a Midwestern prison opposite a distinctive character performance from Edward Norton as Stone- a street-talking but strangely sweet, corn-rowed criminal. The two spend much of the film locked in a room discussing Stone’s possible parole and possible return to his nymphomaniac wife Lucetta, played by Milla Jovovich. When Lucetta starts seeking Jack’s company after-hours and strategically employing her carnal influence to affect his decision on Stone’s parole, Jack’s life becomes much more complicated than simply returning home each night to quietly drink and be distant with his wife on the porch. This is obviously a scenario ripe with opportunity for explosive acting, or quietly powerful performance, and while both happen occasionally –due to the caliber of the cast mostly– the script never creates much momentum in any one scene.
I give credit to DeNiro for a more honest performance than we’ve seen from him lately, but it’s in service to a rather flat character. Norton is extremely convincing and after a moment’s shell-shock, one is able to follow his character eagerly and enjoy his energy. Jovovich is the most mysterious and unpeggable of the characters (well, she’s actually pegged quite often in the film, but you get what I’m saying), though again, the script never lets the character boil up to a satisfying place.
Ultimately Stone is a collection of interesting elements brought together in a way that creates an experience of immersion without ever circling around a convincing theme. I was reminded the most of film’s like There Will Be Blood, where an unsettling, vague sense of dread is present like a cloud over the entire runtime. The great first scene is responsible for much of that dread and it sits under the surface of the film, waiting to rear its ugly head at the worst possible time. It’s a great atmosphere for drama and introspection, but without a strong theme that plays and feels uniquely explored, it simply rings out and disappears once you leave the theater, like a tuning fork struck only once.
To be sure, interesting things happen and are discussed, there is legitimate danger at points, and there are a few bold scenes. The film dances around religious themes with Jack’s wife’s blind faith, and an ever-present and on-the-nose evangelist talk show on Jack’s radio, but… Lucetta’s sexual promiscuity is darkly presented and hints at tragedy, but… Stone’s flirtation with new age philosophy presents challenges to Jack’s conservatism and hypocrisy, but… The opening scene is legitimately disturbing, and haunts several characters in an intriguing way, but…
Stone seems to suffer from thematic presque vu- that feeling that you know exactly what you want to say but the word just wont pour over the edge of your mind. It’s been psychologically described as an intensely active gap between recollection and expression, which fits the film perfectly. The film continuously tilts its head back and back, readying for that thematic sneeze that neither comes, nor provides the subsequent relief.