Norton plays Gerald Creeson, incarcerated for his part in a fire connected to the slaying of his grandparents. De Niro is Jack Mabry, who behaves and works on the nose to keep himself from bleak basal personality trends. He's a dedicated Christian prison P.O. outrun by the decades of deceit he's heard from offenders, always swearing they're innocent, they're sorry, they've found God. He maintains the ever-weakening scaffold with an inexhaustible watercourse of fire-and-brimstone talk radio and a few whopping bourbons between dinner and bed.
De Niro's a veteran at playing characters who obsessively struggle to compensate for debilitating inadequacies. Here it's rage, which perchance brings about lust. Unflinching and talented director John Curran and shrewdly insightful writer Angus MacLachlan's spare, melancholy drama opens with a younger Mabry playing out a shocking scene with his young wife and baby. Years later, they're still married, in a forsaken bottleneck anchored in interpersonal obstruction. He does nothing "immoral." It's his obligation to remain married. His wife Frances Conroy, whose understated performance stabs you in the heart, looks stooped against swipes that never come. But Mabry just keeps on unconsciously nursing whiskey and gaping at the TV, the wall, whatever.
It's time for his retirement. He could forward his case load on to his legatee, but no: He'll fulfill his responsibility to the final T. That involves managing a parole plea by Creeson, who's dreadfully clever, an emotional conspirator, whose wife Lucetta is such a woman that such a man might exploit and be exploited by. Creeson intuits that Mabry, the obliged square-shooter, might be susceptible to certain inducements. Lucetta is sharp enough to undertake, not an intrepid come-on, but a psychological enterprise in which Mabry more or less does the tempting himself.
This is a scenario which cannot be organized into a tidy prison thriller. It entails maneuverings as regards not just behavior, but the messily impalpable hidden drives behind it. Mabry spots in Creeson all the treacherous whims he fears in his own id. Mabry's fiction about himself is that he's a virtuous man, committed to responsibility. However, through that prologue, we know he's in systematic denial about his own devastating compulsions. Lucetta has a crucial part in unearthing and stage-managing a path through Mabry's resistances. How does Creeson feel about the prospect that she'll get carnal with Mabry? How does he feel about her sex life by and large? Is her lechery handy to him? If so is she aware? Stone could've been the standard genre sequence of technical detail, a clear-cut crime movie, but it's too intricate for that. It's truly keen on the psyches and inner lives of these characters, and how they greet a precarious state of affairs, a three-way personality study, as each participant plans, responds and develops through burden from the other two. Each personifies several contradictions, and the film keeps us speculating and paying close attention. De Niro is so uncannily realistic at playing a man who's effectively enfeebled himself owing to apprehension about his resentment, so that sexuality and rage may be harnessed in exactly the contrary way, as in some of his pinnacle characters.
As in all commanding dialogue-driven films, talk totals action, and it feels like it. The exhilaration here is incited by the vocal and physical mutualism between the uniformly riveting actors, and the dramatic characterization they're given by the sensitive camera and the drum-tight cutting. De Niro's performance is some of the most gripping work he's done in a decade, honest, emotionally alive, and a powerhouse refresher of his gift for devoting extraordinary amounts of preparation and research into a performance the nevertheless in effect feels uncannily moment-by-moment. In his agonizingly jaded domestic scenes with Conroy we see another breed of life sentence, two strangers chained together, lumbering the lingering ultimate lap. He inhabit's an unblinkingly realistic union of spiritual fatigue and shrouded malice.
Norton's Creeson exudes misleading geniality in his early scenes. We watch him think as he psychologically tilts his way through the consultations right in front of us. Then he starts to internally transform, and it's not merely his corn-rowed hair that disentangles. But the pleasant surprise is that Milla Jovovich's unpredictably bizarre pussycat Lucetta's just as captivating. As with everything in this film, she's difficult to peg, and that gives the movie its admittedly uncommon intensity. She sometimes appears like a rag doll in her husband's ruse, and conversely an eerily blissful doxy entertained by her control over men.
Stone is a fresh, different and challenging experience as each divulges a benevolent side and a malicious one. Scene after scene is a tractor pull as the disparate clique strive for control and preservation instinct. The story dwells in instability, in uncertainties that proliferate without remedy. The technique of the film's sound design is one of the most striking elements of Stone. Secondary reverberations, for example the buzzing of a bee, are drawn upon to enhance the film's intimate probing of obscure, indefinable themes.
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