You have to give Stone credit for trying to do something different. This prolonged battle of wits between the titular character (Edward Norton), an arsonist who is up for release after serving time for a horrific crime, and Jack Mabry (Robert De Niro), the parole officer who will decide the prisoner’s fate, is a lot more ambitious than the crafty-felon thriller Primal Fear, the movie that made Norton an instant star.
Director John Curran (The Painted Veil), working from a screenplay by Angus MacLachlan (Junebug), lets you know from the start things are not quite what they seem, with a flashback to a young, just-married Jack that reveals great darkness — even madness — inside the man. But that was then. Today, Jack seems like a pleasant enough fellow, and his wife (Frances Conroy), a devout Catholic, appears, on the surface, content.
When Stone, who sports cornrows and an odd, soft-spoken voice, detects cracks beneath Jack’s everyman demeanor, he puts his wife Lucetta (Milla Jovovich, giving the film’s best performance) — a slinky, doe-eyed number with a don’t-trust-me smile — to work on the caseworker and try to make sure he approves the parole.
This is all well and good, but that description makes Stone sound a lot more intriguing than it really is. Curran ratchets everything down to a low hum: The acting fireworks between De Niro and Norton are tamped down to the level of a sparkler, and the story moves slower than the clock near the end of an eight-hour shift. Stone wants to attain a gray zone of morality and explore what, if anything, truly separates good men from bad.
But the film’s noble attempts at something more thought-provoking end up robbing the picture of energy and immediacy. There’s no way to care about any of the characters onscreen — they’re so protected and withdrawn, they barely register as people — and the movie gives you no entryway to invest emotionally in the story. When Stone discovers religion in prison and proclaims to be a changed man, you’re supposed to reflect on the irony that Jack, a regular churchgoer, has found no comfort in his own faith — and may actually be a worse man for his beliefs.
But so what? Stone isn’t the straightforward thriller it appears to be, but the alternative turns out to be dull and lifeless. At least the title is apt: Like a rock, Stone has no pulse.
Cast: Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Milla Jovovich, Frances Conroy.
Director: John Curran.
Screenwriter: Angus MacLachlan.
Producers: Jordan Schur, David J. Mimran, Holly Wiersma.
An Overture Films release. Running time: 105 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, adult themes. Opens Friday Oct. 22 In Miami-Dade at South Beach, Sunset Place; in Broward: Sunrise; in Palm Beach: Delray.