Several days after first viewing the film, and I am still not quite sure what to make of John Curran's Stone. Half of me wants to say I was enthralled by its intricately played noir-like psychological grifting and Edward Norton's ever-evolving, if not a tad stagey, characteristics (from his ticket-selling, unintentionally comic cornrows to his ubiquitous born again evocation of a buzz-laden fake new age religion hilariously called Zukangor), while the other half just wants to claim annoyance at having had to sit through the movie in the first place (I know, I know, ultimately it was my choice to watch it). The most accurate reaction is probably a little of both. Of course this rather bi-polar reaction to the film does snugly correlate to the movie's own bi-polar complex inherent in its unsure but determined footing throughout. A fascinating picture as much as it is a frustrating one.
Stone is one of those pictures that should have been great - a fascinating study on human nature starring two powerful actors like Edward Norton and Robert De Niro, convict and parole officer respectively, as sparring partners - but somewhere in the jumbled mess of a screenplay, those expected aspirations of greatness fall to the wayside, knocked asunder by the pretentions of those involved. Granted, the film is more than aptly acted by all the principals (Milla Jovovich, acting as a kewpie-eyed femme fatale to De Niro's hapless sucker, being the big surprise in this category) and watching the intertwining threads of the film's attempted three card monte has its moments, but the whole proverbial house of cards collapses under the weight of the film's one glaring hole - the fact that De Niro's character would have to be a complete idiot not to know he is being played from moment one, and as far as I can tell, aforementioned action aside, De Niro's character does not seem to be a complete idiot.
Sure, I suppose, in a perfect world, when you are being seduced by someone such as Ms. Jovovich, with her pretty eyes and pirate smile, and her vocal mannerisms that incite grown-up Lolita fantasies, you don't wonder about her motives, you just play along and allow yourself to be seduced, but that oh-so-fine line between desire and downright moronic behaviour should probably not be crossed in the real world that these characters are ostensibly living in - and therein lies the rub. But then, perhaps one can overlook such trifles if one is willing to. Being the story of the titular (or is he?) cornrowed convict who is so obviously playing De Niro's dead-on-the-inside parole officer, and the waiting, seemingly adoring wife who would do absolutely anything(!) to get her husband out of jail, one must practice at least a little bit of that old suspension of disbelief in order to get through to what director Curran (helmsman on the acerbic We Don't Live Here Anymore and screenwriter on the brilliant but overlooked The Killer Inside Me), screenwriter Angus MacLachlan (his only prior feature credit is Junebug) and method man Norton are trying to accomplish here.
One could also make a case for De Niro's troubled soul (especially considering the character's actions in the pre-credit opening salvo) and the possibility that perhaps this obliviousness is not necessarily the workings of a complete idiot, but of a self-destructive personality just hoping to end the pain of life without having his own hand be a party to it. Sure, this theory perhaps doesn't jibe with the rest of De Niro's actions and therefore seems somewhat implausible, but it is a theory nonetheless. Of course one could just forego any sort of psychological critique altogether and just sit back and watch Norton and De Niro spar (Norton is the definite winner no matter what the outcome may be just from the strength of character found in his stony facade as compared to De Niro's self-loathing fossil). Watch as Jovovich (oh that bewitching rolling of the eyes) seductively enraptures De Niro with the mere lilt of her inflection and watch him as he collides on the inevitable rocks, blinded by the sultry siren songs of the wife who would do absolutely anything. Watch as the always-wonderful Frances Conroy deteriorates throughout the movie as De Niro's long-suffering wife - the only true victim in the movie. Just sit back and watch - it's your best bet for maximum enjoyment. [11/24/10]