|Stone | Directed by Jim Curran | Written by Angus MacLachlan | With Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Milla Jovovich, and Frances Conroy | Overture | 105 minutes|
Of the two films released this week about women laboring to spring their men from the joint, I prefer Jim Curran's mystifying Stone
to Tony Gwynn's earnestly uplifting Conviction
. The latter celebrates the virtues of self-sacrifice, justice, loyalty, and hard work. The former presents a world of ambiguity and chaos. And though Conviction
is based on a true story, the fictitious Stone
seems more true to life.
The title is the pet name given by his girlfriend to Gerald Creeson (Edward Norton), an inmate convicted of abetting the murder of his grandparents and the torching of their house. He might be a con man, or he might be deluded, or he might be on the path to enlightenment. Maybe all three. Lucetta (Milla Jovovich) inspires him with her polymorphous carnality and her tabloid spirituality, both of which she shares with him under the eyes of the annoyed prison guards during her frequent jailhouse visits. Stone describes her as an "alien," and as things unfold, he might have a point.
Caught between Stone and a hard place is Stone's caseworker, Jack (Robert De Niro), who's burnt out and eager for retirement. As a flashback prelude demonstrates, Jack is not a very nice man, and his Bible-thumping wife (Frances Conroy) certainly has a lot to be unhappy about. But like all the other characters in Stone (and not unlike the characters in Curran's previous film, an adaptation of Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil), he wrestles with his conscience, his desire, and his gnawing despair.
Stone and Lucetta instigate his soul searching. Desperate to get released, Stone wheedles Jack with obscene invitations involving Lucetta. When Jack won't budge, Stone tries to prove he's been rehabilitated by pretending to be born again. He finds a pamphlet for a cultish, pop-psychological religion in the prison library and gets drawn into its pseudo-mysticism. Meanwhile, Jack finds his own religious and ethical principles challenged by Lucetta's anarchic erotic charms.
Despite dealing for the most part with scenes of one-on-one dialogue set in confined spaces punctuated by exteriors of blighted Detroit, with a backdrop of evangelical talk radio, Curran sustains suspense and an atmosphere of intensifying menace. Occasionally he breaks this pattern with startling images, such as Stone's flashback to his grandparents' burning house. (It's reminiscent of a similar scene in Terrence Malick's Badlands.) Or a horrifying sequence ending with a close-up of the light going out in a dying man's eyes.
But mostly the film depends on the tension the actors create — though not all of them put in their best work. De Niro plays a recognizable variation on his gimlet-eyed, humorless jerk with a hair-trigger temper, older but no wiser. Norton, with his cornrows and his insinuating hip-hop circumlocutions, edges close to caricature until he achieves a kind of stillness after a shocking epiphany.
Jovovich, though, emerges as the film's insouciant driving force, a protean, archetypal figure of female mystery and seduction. The character is as mediæval in its sexism as that description suggests, but Jovovich transcends its limitations. Or nearly does. I can't help thinking that this is yet another film, like Conviction, that divides women into sluts and self-sacrificing housewives — though the enigma of which side Stone favors is part of its appeal.