' Cinema Romantico: Stone

Monday, October 18, 2010

Stone

Though it starts one scene too early and ends about 10 minutes too late, "Stone" is a refreshing throwback, an old-school noir flick with a shady, shifty con and an exquisite femme fatale going after a hero who really isn't heroic at all and, rather, undone by his own flaws and weaknesses. The film itself has flaws and weaknesses, too, and beyond the beginning and ending, things like heavy-handed symbolism, but the good outweighs the bad and John Curran's film turns out to be a taut drama that, in spite of some dark material, is a whole lot of fun to watch.

Robert DeNiro is Jack Mabry a prison corrections officer in charge of reviewing potential parolees and who is (wait for it) on the verge of retirement. (Of course, he is.) He doubles as a devout Christian who listens, along with his silently suffering wife (Frances Conroy), ceaslessly to Bible talk radio, though they both counteract this by swilling booze just as ceaselessly and communicating as little as possbile. Edward Norton is Gerald Creeson - "Call me Stone" - behind bars for 10-12 years on an arson rap, and now sitting in front of Mabry, pledging himself to be reformed and ready to re-enter the world. He has a a job lined up and he has a beatiful wife who will look after him. Ah yes, the beautiful wife, there's one in every potentially reformed con story - she is Lucetta (Milla Jovovich) and even though she is an elementary school teacher she is also, as stated previously, the exquisite femme fatale, employing cigarettes like props and giggling at anything any male in a 50 foot radius says. And Stone, desperate to start doing straight time, seems willing to serve up his seductive wife as an offering to this supposed man of God to aid his potential release. Will Jack reciprocate?

Naturally, and this is "Stone's" single greatest issue - namely, it's opening scene, a flashback to the early days of the Mabry marriage which essentially plays the film's hand way too early. It is chilling, sure, but from that first instant the audience knows precisely what type of man Mabry really is and what he is really capable of and causes much tension to be killed before it's even generated. How did this happen? Was this in Angus MacLachlan's script? How did it stay in? How did the editor not take this out? Inconceivable. But not really. Not these days. Nevertheless....

The playing field is re-leveled primarily through its trio of primal performances and in the way the audience is never quite certain of the level of Stone's sincerity about, well, anything. Norton is flat-out commanding as the title character and will undoubtedly be ignored for any and all awards because this will be labeled as a "genre film" (you now have permission to roll your eyes) but whatever. Yes, yes, yes, his work is showy, the accent, the changing hair, but this does not mean the show isn't must-see, and it is because Norton gives away virtually nothing. Is he merely willing to go to any extreme to get out? Does he merely get high on manipulating? Is that really some sort of spiritual awakening he undergoes or he is just acting a part?

As Mabry, DeNiro willingly ventures into old-man territory, letting resignation and confusion color his face. He chastises Stone for his misdeeds and refers to himself as a man of God in line readings that suggest he does not quite believe this himself. Watch he and his wife sit in the darkness of their porch listening to these people preach and you see a couple whose options are spent, who had nowhere else to turn, who crave for this to satisfy their emptiness even though they are aware it hasn't and won't.


And then there is Jovovich in what is likely 2010's Most Surprisingly Terrific Performance Of The Year. Much like the late Brittany Murphy should have been featured again and again as a femme fatale, it would seem Milla Jovovich has found her wheelhouse as a modern-day Lizabeth Scott. Over and over, scene after scene, she plays her part to say I'm-a-ditz!I'm-a-ditz!I'm-a-ditz!I'm-a-ditz!-I'm-a-ditz!....or am I? You, as the audience, are lulled right in like Mabry. "She's obviously just a puppet for her husband and there is no way that she could possibly....sigh. She's so sultry. She probably isn't as wily as she seems. She probably means well. Right?" Her lips, in fact, give one of the most expressive turns of the year, twisting, re-arranging, smiling, smirking, laughing, frowning, quivering, mirroring the constant alterations of what she may or may not be after. She keeps you at arm's length and all you want to do is get closer. Milla brings it. Hollywood casting directors, recognize what has happened here! Please!

What "Stone" gets so right is the endless sensation of hidden agendas, this inability to know everything even if you think you do (which would have been far greater without that opening scene, but I digress). This unspoken air hovering actually works to underscore the theme Curran and MacLachlan are developing all along in relation to the questions of faith and it builds to a conclusion that is admittedly melodramatic - just like any well done old school noir movie - with a capping line that would have perfectly and deliciously summarized the entire enterprise without conking anyone over the head but then, of course, there is the fear not everyone understood what you were trying to say and so it continues on to spell it out just a bit more and it drags and....

Forgive and forget. Turn the cheek. That's what we're supposed to do, right? Pardon the imperfections, please, because the best stuff in "Stone" is one of the best movies of the year.

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