Four years ago director John Curran and actor Ed Norton collaborated on a contemporary version of Somerset Maugham’s short story The Painted Veil, which (like so much of that author’s work) focused on themes of sin, redemption & the excoriation of those with a priggish morality capable of judging the actions of others while blind to their own flaws. This time out, Curran and Norton return to that theme, (in the company of Robert DeNiro and a sultry Milla Jovoich) in this prison-based drama which examines whether it’s truly possible for us to initiate self-change. Part thriller, part melodrama and part theological exploration, Stone never really finds its footing - - but it raises intriguing issues and the actors deliver a trio of credible characters not often found in mainline Hollywood films. This one offers much that’s worth thinking about.
DeNiro plays Jack, an emotionally distant parole officer nearing retirement who must pass judgment on whether to recommend parole for Stone, (Norton) a convicted arsonist with a thoroughly malodorous personality. Scabrous he may be, but Stone’s smart enough to sense he’ll need some leverage over Jack to curry the latter’s favor. Stone decides his equalizer will come in the form of Jack’s seduction by the convict’s slatternly wife Lucetta (Jovoich). This cynical ploy works, but in ways which cause the principals to act out their motivations in surprisingly unexpected ways.
Screenwriter Angus MacLachlan (whose credits include the inspired but badly overlooked Junebug) laces his script with a large and varied vocabulary of profane vulgarities, most of which come from Norton’s thoroughly venal Stone, but as the criminal watches the reactions his scheme produces in Jack’s behavior, Stone begins an awkward but fascinating ethical metamorphosis which suggests that real self-transformation can only occur when a brutally candid acceptance of who you are comes attached to a willingness to risk changing into something not yet fully grasped.
How Stone, his round-heeled spouse and the supposedly moral prison bureaucrat respond to the scheme Stone puts in place makes for a storyline which will strike some as not sufficiently interesting and others as an off-putting example of artistic self-indulgence. But if it’s true that Stone’s whole is less than the sum of its parts, some of those bits and pieces will linger long after the ending credits roll…
As Stone, Norton delivers another of those performances that will strike fans as brilliant and foes as mannered; his gradual conversion to a more palatable if flawed man comes about a bit too easily to be fully credible - - but the actor is always willing to take risks in his work and that commitment pays real dividends here. As Jack, the emotionally constipated embodiment of conventional morality, DeNiro has the task of making a shallow and unattractive man interesting in his very banality - - and once again, the actor delivers; this is DeNiro’s best performance in some time and it’s a shame to think it will be largely missed because of the small box-office appeal this movie is sure to suffer.
Jovoich, (the Ukrainian-born actress/model whose roles to date have been heavy on visual appeal and light on dramatic ability) fashions a deliciously-credible Lucetta, not unlike Sadie Thompson, Maugham’s heroine in Rain. But while Sadie and Lucetta may be similar in their erotic appetites, the latter doesn’t have the former’s ability for candid self-assessment. Jovoich delivers a beguiling seductress in Lucetta, someone unwilling or simply unable to foresee the likely consequences of her actions. The final glimpse of her, eyeing a solitary man drinking alone in a dimly-lit bar suggests that she’s unlikely to ever learn the most important of life’s lesson.
The technical aspects of Stone are competent without being noteworthy, but that’s not to criticize the value of this modestly budgeted film which boasts 3 fine performances in its examination of some very profound issues.
The verdict? An offbeat treatise on spiritual change which relies on the skill of its cast to present a decidedly downbeat story.
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