Stone (2010) directed by John Curran stars Robert De Niro as Jack Mabry, Edward Norton as Gerald ”Stone” Creeson, Milla Jovovich as Lucetta Creeson, Frances Conroy as Madylyn Maybry, and Peter Lewis as the Warden.
It starts with a bee. It's not a huge big thing, the buzzing of that bee, the noise of it banging against a window looking for a way in. The Mabrys’ house is located out in the country side, fields all around. Jack (Enver Gjokaj) is sitting in front of the TV in his recliner and his young wife (Pepper Brinkley) is taking their daughter to bed. It's clearly not a happy marriage and when Madylyn says she is leaving her husband he careens up the stairs, grabs their sleeping daughter, and holds her out the open window, threatening to drop her if Madylyn leaves.
The thing about that opening sequence is that it sets the scene for so much of the discussion to come, even as just character exposition. There is something unwholesome at the core of Jack Mabry, despite his superficially faultless appearance, and that's crucial. He keeps it all inside and isn't drawn out until he comes into contact with the Creesons. Jack works as parole officer in a prison. It's his job to talk to the inmates and try to give an honest evaluation of their chances, the level of sincerity in their appeals for freedom. That's where we meet Gerald ”Stone” Creeson. Stone has been convicted of accessory to murder and arson. He has served eight years of his ten to fifteen and he's ready to be free. Stone is clearly intelligent in the casually ruthless way of a social manipulator with a very clear goal in mind. His wife, Lucetta, also wants him released, and when Stone asks her to help him with that, she does. Lucetta is also a manipulator, but of a different order. She uses her looks and prowess in the bedroom to get what she wants. She is definitely a femme fatale, but there's an odd innocence to her, something guileless and approval-seeking that makes her intriguing where she could have been just another tired cliché. She loves Stone and she's willing to do whatever it takes to get to Jack, and that includes seduction. It's not just sins of the flesh, though, it's also about a way of thinking.
There are two couples entrenched in a particular relationship dance of stasis when this narrative starts and there are four separate characters continuing their journey alone at the end. It's subtle enough that you can voice the complaint that nothing happens, if you think of the dissolution of a 40-year marriage as nothing. There are quite a few noir markers in this, as well, and the tense atmosphere probably signals thriller to some. But the thing is, this is an open-ended piece and as such it is so wonderfully complex that I, for one, enjoy it immensely. The interplay between Norton and De Niro is thoroughly pleasing to watch, as are the scenes between Jovovich and De Niro, where you certainly see how she appeals to the vanity and carnality of a character who seems to have held himself in check all his life, playing it safe, playing by the rules, and giving lip service to a religion he seems to be in serious doubt about towards the end.
There are several themes worked into the fabric of this narrative, like the sense of trying to take responsibility for your actions, to find some sense of balance, and the religious theme is neatly handled, nothing simple about it. Stone starts his exploration by going through the prison library looking at Christian reading material for a way to work something about epiphanies into his parole talks after Jack gives him the opening with an off-hand comment about epiphanies, and even though the viewer gets the sense that it starts as a part of the manipulation, it becomes something else for Stone, who actually seems to find something to help him make a change in his way of thinking. Every time one of the characters is in a car, the radio is dialed into a Christian radio talk show that goes through the major themes of sin and redemption by way of “regular folks” and you have to take that background chatter into account. It's like the running cultural context worked down deep into the Western thought-grid. It's there and it's churning away, but you don't necessarily question it.
Stone and Jack sitting across from each other at Jack's desk keep playing the same chess game of a conversation every time they meet and it's fascinating to watch how the board gets set up and torn down and reconfigured over and over. This is a tight, character-driven piece. It offers no easy answers and it doesn't serve up a huge turning point, or a hugely dramatic ending. There is arson, murder, infidelity, and all manner of other less pleasant human behavior and it's all twisted up into one interesting Gordian knot of tension. The seemingly meek and put-upon wife Madylyn who mostly shuffles around in a whisky-drenched haze has some very ugly frustrations and misgivings seething under the surface, but she gives them only the meekest, most docile voice until the house gets set on fire, literally. That's where she shows herself, shows the things that have been festering deep down. There is no clear indication of why the house burns, just like there is no definite resolution to any of this, moral quandaries, ethical implications, and all.
The performances are strong throughout. De Niro's disillusioned cynic, Norton's morally ambiguous Stone, Jovovich who is cat-like in her disdain and focused sexual enjoyment, Conroy's frumpy alcoholic, and the various supporting cast like the bland priest who offers the sentiment “God works in mysterious ways” as an actual response to a crisis of faith. And in the end we are neatly brought back to that bee buzzing in the beginning. More than anything this is a tale about exercising integrity in the moment of choice. Just because you’re not doing wrong doesn’t mean you’re doing right. It gets my hearty recommendation for that and for the thoroughly enjoyable intricacy of the collective acting.