Overwriting mars the end of this sentence
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, October 15, 2010
Say this about "Stone": When it's good, it's very good. And this twisty, atmospheric drama is at its best when Edward Norton takes center screen as the title character, a convicted arsonist trying to wheedle an early release from a career prison parole officer named Jack, played by Robert De Niro.
The last time the two actors worked together was on the terrific yet underrated thriller "The Score" in 2001. Unfortunately, fans of that movie hoping to see a similarly crafty game of cat-and-mouse will be only sporadically rewarded.
Admittedly, the two have their share of electrifying duets, as when Stone sits across from Jack's desk, trying to get into the buttoned-up bureaucrat's head. But ultimately "Stone" sags under its own overblown philosophical weight, with a strained and painfully obvious spiritual subtext finally smothering what could have been a simple, effective psychological thriller.
Norton is next to unrecognizable as Stone, who, when he meets Jack, has his hair in tight cornrows and possesses a clear command of street vernacular. "She's a dime, dog," he drawls. He's describing his wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), and she is indeed a perfect 10 (but not a perfect angel). As Stone tries to convince Jack that he's a changed man - with the help of Lucetta, who lobbies Jack with baby-voiced earnestness after hours - it's difficult to tell whether his professions of newfound faith are on the level or the words of a well-rehearsed psychopath.
In a turn similar to his astonishing 1996 debut in "Primal Fear," Norton proves adept at keeping his own quiet focus even while his character keeps the audience guessing. This is the actor's finest and most nuanced performance in years. De Niro's Jack, a paragon of repressed Midwestern rage, is less convincing, if only because his New York accent is at odds with his foursquare Michigan bureaucrat, but mostly because Jack loses credibility as his journey becomes a parable rather than recognizably human.
"Stone" depends on sudden epiphanies and sordid moments of breathtaking self-destruction for much of its dramatic momentum. The result is a film that feels more written than lived, with Jack's and Stone's actions too neatly fitting the millennial warnings heard on the evangelist radio show Jack listens to in his car. The film's most consistent character, the avaricious and anarchic Lucetta, is portrayed in a bracing turn by Jovovich as a woman whose volatile life force is of suitably biblical dimensions.
"Stone" was written by Angus MacLachlan and directed by John Curran, who worked with Norton on the 2006 film "The Painted Veil." It bears noting that Curran also wrote the recent "The Killer Inside Me," which, like "Stone," suffers from a surfeit of grand gestures and luridly overworked metaphors. A leaner, less overreaching enterprise would have better served the story's three promising protagonists, especially Norton's character, who remains wily and inscrutable until the strange and morally freighted end.
Contains sexuality, violence and pervasive profanity.