It makes a sad kind of sense that stars Edward Norton (Pride and Glory) and Robert DeNiro (City by the Sea) agreed to make Stone, a wholly der-ivative and inconsequential mid-level character drama featuring tough guys in tough situations. I’ve even put examples of their work in some (but certainly not all) of those tough-guy films in parentheses by their names. If you’ve seen either of those, you’ve seen this one, too.
What is surprising is that the creative team behind Stone has not done work like this before, or anything close to it. Writer Angus MacLachlan’s last screenplay was 2005’s lovely little breakout Junebug, featuring Amy Adams in a star-making, Oscar-nominated role as an unstoppably plucky, pregnant art dealer. Director John Curran previously helmed the heartbreaking We Don’t Live Here Anymore and the sweeping The Painted Veil (also starring Norton) before this. But it’s been many years since those movies, and I suppose a guy’s gotta work.
Stone features Norton as the titular prisoner doing time as an accessory to murder and looking to break out. He’s forced to sit down with DeNiro’s Jack, a blue-collar parole worker whose job it is to determine a potential parolee’s state of mind and sense of remorse. When they first meet, Stone doesn’t seem concerned with convincing Jack at all, as he hurls invective at him in a cringe-worthy “street” voice, his hair stretched back into cornrows. Norton’s a peerless mimic, but his own filmography works against him in the opening scenes: His entire character screams Primal Fear.
Jack isn’t giving much of himself either, and for good reason: When facing countless violent criminals, showing any weakness or even empathy would leave him open to exploitation. Regardless, Stone thinks he’s found a weak spot in Jack, who winces at the mention of explicit sexual acts. He proceeds to obliterate Jack’s defenses with some withering guesswork as to Jack’s bedroom life with his long-suffering wife.
Pretty soon, Stone’s girl on the outside, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), is prancing around Jack, charming her way into his good graces and begging with pursed lips for Jack to release Stone. There’s only so much the guy can take, and soon she gets Jack into bed for an affair that threatens to unravel Jack’s career and home life.
Surrounding the action are vignettes of Jack and Stone’s spiritual standings. The film opens with Jack and his wife when they were younger and just starting their lives. Jack does something unthinkably cruel before we cut to his older self. It’s a scene that immediately makes us hate Jack, but it’s also one that never really pays off or gets called into question very much. It doesn’t clarify Jack’s personality; it only lowers the stakes when he falls off his moral high horse. Stone’s coffee-table spirituality serves no real purpose, either. Only Jovovich, in a shocker, turns in anything resembling a “performance” – at least Lucetta’s interesting to talk to.
Every time Stone builds steam, it blows a gasket somewhere outside of the frame. It’s a frustrating, stunted film, dishonest in its intentions and clumsy with its narrative. Curran and MacLachlan are worthy of better material, and here’s hoping they find it fast.