When Robert De Niro received the Cecil B. DeMille Award for his "outstanding contribution to the entertainment field" at this year's Golden Globe Awards, he lamented in his acceptance speech that some of his films didn't get the recognition and patronage he felt they deserved. 'Stone' was among the titles he mentioned, and after watching this brooding study of despair and spiritual rebirth, I must concur with the two-time Oscar-winning actor. Director John Curran's absorbing, low-key drama should have garnered a larger audience and more critical buzz, for it tells a meaningful story, showcases two powerhouse actors going head-to-head, and is presented with style and grace. Yet probing character portraits, especially those with potent religious underpinnings, tend to put off mainstream audiences, and 'Stone' seems to have fallen victim to this kind of prejudice, and as a result, has fallen through the cracks.
Redemption and resurrection are two dominant themes that run through 'Stone,' and hopefully this review, in some small way, will help resurrect and redeem this underrated feature. Some viewers may find 'Stone' too preachy, too agenda-driven, and a bit heavy-handed in its presentation, and that's understandable. Films dealing with spiritual journeys are always a bit tricky to put over, and often incite strong, polarized reactions. Many consider religion to be a private matter, and, unless they're watching a biopic or documentary, want to keep it out of their entertainment, just as they want it out of politics and government. And the fact that 'Stone' questions the value of organized religion and seems to promote alternative forms of spirituality will surely rub traditionalists the wrong way. But it's this battle between old and new, this struggle to find meaning and peace in our lives and relationships, and this drive to latch on to something that speaks to us that forms the foundation of 'Stone' and makes it resonate.
Jack Mabry (Robert De Niro) is nearing the end of a long career as an inmate counselor at a Michigan penitentiary. Tough yet fair, Jack evaluates prisoners and determines whether they have been sufficiently rehabilitated to merit a parole board hearing. His patience and, eventually, ethics are supremely tested, however, by Stone (Edward Norton), a sullen, convicted arsonist with a massive chip on his shoulder, who's desperate to get out, but reticent to plead his case and open up to Jack about his troubled past. Stone quickly senses a deep-seeded personal repression and sexual frustration lying beneath Jack's crusty, holier-than-thou veneer, and enlists the services of his gorgeous wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), to exploit those weaknesses and do what's necessary to win Jack's favor. Though he knows getting involved with Lucetta on any level is wrong, and would violate his moral code and jeopardize his dormant, 43-year marriage to the uptight religious zealot, Madylyn (Frances Conroy), Jack can't resist the devilish temptation. Yet just as Stone begins to lead Jack down a destructive path that will change his life, Jack begins to chip away at Stone's shell, inspiring the hardened criminal to seek solace in spirituality, which will in turn alter his existence in a way he never imagined.
'Stone' succeeds because its characters draw us in. The plot may be a tad far-fetched, but the issues the characters confront, the demons that torture them, and how they react to stimuli and situations keep us enthralled, whether we can fully relate to them or not. Religion may not rule our lives, but like Jack and Stone, we may still question its validity and worth. We may seem content on the surface, but a nagging emptiness may eat away at our souls, and we may harbor a longing that can't be quenched or a dark desire that haunts us. 'Stone' touches these nerves, and as the tension slowly builds, a sense of impending doom hangs over the four figures who dominate the story.
Curran, who also directed Norton in the beautifully mounted and supremely affecting adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's 'The Painted Veil,' possesses a striking visual sense that adds a poetic lyricism to the gritty, at times unpleasant story. He also has a way of heightening impact by cutting to the heart of matters in a straightforward yet delicate manner, and drawing top-flight performances from his actors. Though 'Stone' benefits from an intriguing narrative, much of its fascination emanates from watching the talented cast play it out.
De Niro and Norton (who appeared together previously in 2001's 'The Score') go at it like a couple of prizefighters, sparring here, jabbing there, and taking turns throwing a series of knockout punches. Much of the film requires them to subtly push each other's buttons and wage a mental chess match, and the nuances and shadings they bring to their respective portrayals engender plenty of admiration. Though we never forget we're watching De Niro and Norton, we still lose ourselves in their characters, and that's a tribute to their superior abilities. Norton seems to channel both the duplicitous inmate he played in 'Primal Fear' and De Niro's Max Cady from 'Cape Fear' to construct another of his unsettling yet mesmerizing performances. Few actors inhabit a role the way Norton does, and his work here, as per usual, is both stellar and surprising.
De Niro has had trouble finding worthy parts of late, but this is one in which he can truly sink his teeth. Restraint is the name of the game here, and De Niro underplays well, boiling over only when Jack can no longer bear the weight of his massive burdens. And in a performance of startling power, Jovovich leaves the 'Resident Evil' films behind with her mesmerizing portrayal of the pivotal Lucetta, a cheerful, nurturing kindergarten teacher by day and, a la 'Looking for Mr. Goodbar,' a wild, sensual mantrap by night. Jovovich juggles a childlike innocence with a predator's hunger to create a captivating - and wholly disturbing - woman.
'Stone' is a small film that maintains a feeling of unease, and slowly builds to a thought-provoking climax. It's well acted, sensitively directed, and meaningful in a way few films are these days. It doesn't try to shroud its themes, and some viewers may find its overt exploration of spirituality distasteful. But if you put that aspect of the movie in its proper place and just go with the story's flow, I think you'll find it a worthwhile and rewarding experience.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Stone' comes packaged in a standard Blu-ray case on a dual-layered BD-50 disc. Video codec is 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC and a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track is the only sound option offered. Upon insertion, a couple of previews precede the film's main menu.
'Stone' comes to Blu-ray sporting a high-quality 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer that looks surprisingly lush for a film of this sort. A keen visual sense is one of director Curran's strong suits (his remake of 'The Painted Veil,' one my favorite movies yet to be released on Blu-ray, stands as one of the most beautifully shot pictures of recent years), and despite the sterile prison settings and stark domestic interiors, the image often exudes a lovely warmth that draws us into the characters' closely guarded lives. Not a speck or scratch sullies the pristine source material, which is distinguished by the slightest hint of grain. Nicely saturated colors, especially greens, jump off the screen with beautiful vibrancy, and deep, inky black levels and pure whites provide excellent contrast.
Close-ups are quite clear and crisp - you can almost count the individual hairs on De Niro's bushy eyebrows or the number of braids in Norton's cornrows - and background elements are well defined. Fleshtones remain stable and natural-looking throughout, and shadow delineation is quite good. 'Stone' contains several nocturnal and dimly-lit scenes, but the eye never has to strain to pick out details. Lines are sharp but never appear enhanced, and no noise, posterization, or other digital issues afflict the picture.
All in all, 'Stone' looks great in high-def, and the quality transfer keeps us focused on the tense interplay between the characters.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track pumps out clear, well-defined sound and makes full use of the wide spectrum. Though largely dialogue-driven, the film nevertheless makes the most of each sonic opportunity. The surrounds kick in fairly frequently with subtle atmospherics, such as buzzing bees, chirping birds, and gentle breezes, and distinct stereo separation up front, including a few seamless pans, maintains aural interest. During the opening titles, a cacophony of competing radio talk shows flood the mix, but each is firmly anchored in a specific channel - center, left, right - resulting in a strikingly precise effect. Accents, such as ringing telephones, often provide an unexpected jolt, and the music enjoys good fidelity. Some of the whispered dialogue can be a little tough to comprehend, but most conversations are easy to understand and properly prioritized.
On its surface, 'Stone' doesn't seem to be the type of film to supply much audio excitement, but this above-average track maximizes what it's given, and I was pleasantly surprised by its complexity and execution.
Aside from a slew of trailers, only one extra finds its way onto the disc, and it's hardly noteworthy.
'Stone' won't speak to everyone, but those who enjoy searing character studies, potent themes, and well-crafted direction and performances will certainly appreciate this slow-burn thriller. Robert De Niro and Edward Norton lock horns, and their riveting portrayals, along with the impressive work of Milla Jovovich, help keep the film taut and involving. Extras are weak, but excellent video and audio heighten the film's impact. A rental will most likely suffice for most viewers, but I'm keeping my copy and recommending this interesting, slightly offbeat movie.