TIFF10 REVIEW: Stone [2010]

“I don’t want no beef with you, I want to be a vegetarian”

The trailers being released for Rochester resident John Curran’s newest film Stone show a conventional thriller concerning a convict using his wife to seduce the parole officer in control of an early release. You almost think the advertisement gives everything away, touching upon the secret affair as well as an interesting change in attitude by the inmate who orchestrates it all, almost as though revenge will be sought after despite his blackmail plan being the cause. This is what went through my mind waiting in line to get into the Toronto Film Festival Screening with Curran in attendance. The only thing giving me pause was the director’s ominous closing sentence during his introduction about how he made the film “to provoke discussion”. I had no idea what that meant exactly and I never would have guessed spiritual and religious undertones to soon be made apparent. The tagline “Some People Tell Lies. Others Live Them” couldn’t be more appropriate. No one is safe from bad choices or the willingness to commit a crime whether you have or not. Sometimes acceptance is the only thing holding you back from salvation.

Beginning in flashback—“Dollhouse’s” Enver Gjokaj a spitting image of a young De Niro—we are made privy to an incident both dark and sinister; one repressed but never truly forgotten by Madylyn Mabry (Frances Conroy). The actions of Jack (soon to be portrayed by Robert De Niro) are the start of a new chapter for the Mabrys, one built on fear and regret; the quiet following a buzzing bee’s death louder than the flapping of his wings ever were. It’s an opening scene you won’t soon forget and one you don’t quite have the information to comprehend until an hour or so later with the introduction of Zukangor, a religion based in sound as the voice of God. Until the explanation of this faith, we simply find ourselves in Jack’s office, weeks before retirement, looking to see his final inmates through to their parole hearings. Who was ever to know that the life he lived—all those silent days at home watching golf, a daughter growing up and moving out, and the growing resentment of Madylyn, a virtual prisoner in her own home—would take him on a path to meet Gerald ‘Stone’ Creeson, a man whose actions would stir up old wounds and show that no one is exempt from karmic retribution?

Edward Norton’s Stone is a complicated character. Partaking in his own research for the role, Norton met a prisoner on his journey and adopted the man’s look, demeanor, and spiritual transformation. Recently released, Curran says he believes the man will soon get to see the film himself on the big screen to watch his persona appropriated for the role originated in screenwriter Angus MacLachlan’s theatrical play. We aren’t initially told what crime has put Stone in jail, only that he has a ten-year bid and a good chance of early release. His soft, scratchy voice riddled with profanity and cornrowed hair project a certain stereotype, making us believe he is a punk willing to say and do whatever is necessary to go free, most likely eventually finding his way back shortly after. Creating a rapport with De Niro’s no-nonsense, seemingly straight-laced lawman without hidden secrets, Stone soon brings in his beautiful and willing wife Lucetta (Milla Jovovich) to the conversation. Not so subtly leaving hints of her looks or prowess in bed, the sly smile on Norton’s face, allude to the plan being laid out. Lucetta begins to actively seek Jack on his personal time, doing what she can to help out her man.

But so much more happens on the fringes. Zukangor might actually be changing this man responsible for helping kill his grandparents and set fire to their house. He knows what is going on between Mabry and his wife, he knows he is the one that got the ball rolling, but the teachings have him in another state of consciousness. Stone desperately attempts to seek the kind of overwhelming sound from God that will speak to him and express the path to take. It’s like the code word for a hypnotic, the tone instantly snapping the subject into a new course of thought and action. They are the moments of contemplation, constantly replaying in slomotion, an out of body experience watching yourself commit the act without emotion or regret. It’s not a matter of feeling guilt or asking forgiveness for the atrocities you’ve committed. Sometimes accepting the fact you did them—no one forced you at gunpoint—and realizing you’d have done it again is all that’s needed to feel reformed. Does a willingness to partake in an event mean it was part of God’s plan? Does believing all your actions are part of a bigger whole, no matter how atrocious they are, make them okay?

Stone causes its audience to question not only what’s onscreen, but also their belief structure. You can go to church every Sunday and think that it is enough, continuing to live a normal life knowing the threat that caused it to be possible. How much worse is committing the crime compared to using the prospect of doing so in order to get your way? One could say De Niro’s Mabry always had the constitution for wrongdoing, adultery, or murder, he simply found a life where his ability to instill fear kept him from making good on the promise. Does that make him better than a man like Stone, a man who has accepted what he’s done and looks forward to continuing his life onto a path of good? Who is the bigger liar, one living a lie or one refusing to hide the fact he’s done evil? So many strands of thought and hope for explanation run through this work, Curran even using the recordings of a local Michigan Christian radio host as the background score to Jack’s fractured existence. This will not be a film for people to embrace; I predict mainstream America will find it obtuse and unworthy of their time. But watching it, thinking about it days later, and remembering Curran saying his goal was to be true to the story and embrace its inaccessibility—I can’t say it’s anything but a success.

Stone 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] Robert De Niro and Edward Norton star in Overture Films’ STONE. Photo by Ron Batzdorff. © 2010 Stone Productions, LLCÊ All Rights Reserved.
[2] (Left to right.) Robert De Niro and Milla Jovovich star in Overture Films’ STONE. Photo by Ron Batzdorff. © 2010 Stone Productions, LLCÊ All Rights Reserved.
[3] Robert De Niro stars as Jack Mabry and Frances Conroy stars as Madylyn in Overture Films’ Stone (2010)

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