When Jack Mabry (Robert De Niro) calls upon his pastor for spiritual advice he’s told that god speaks to us in mysterious ways, though the pastor may not have imagined the Lord being channeled through a cornrow-sporting, pornographically minded, trash-talking convicted arsonist when he offered up that old chestnut. Mabry’s a parole officer on the verge of retirement, his last case to close being the aforementioned Gerald “Stone” Creeson (Edward Norton), who for all his abrasive locker room jive seems to have a good heart and an earnest desire to get out of jail and get his shit together. Stone comes across some New Agey pamphlet in the prison library that promises spiritual awakening to those who listen for the right sound, those ready to become god’s tuning fork. Stone’s awakening comes one day during lunch while staring at a nature scene mural on the mess hall wall.
Stone was written by Angus MacLachlan, who previously wrote the script for Junebug, based on his own play. Directed by Phil Morrison, Junebug was buoyed on a warm embracing of eccentricity and subtle playfulness with form. Stone, directed by John Curran, is far more somber and downplays its characters’ quirks, though it’s very easy to imagine its premise yielding a comedy, particularly once we factor Stone’s wife Lucetta (Milla Jovovich) into the mix, a talented seductress who's big into the healing power of magnets and aims to boost her husband’s chances of early release by getting cozy with Mabry. As wildly different in tone as Junebug and Stone are, their similarities constitute much of what’s most fascinating in both films: an interest in the line that divides religious practice from spiritual thirst, and in the fundamental role outsiders play in shaping a given community. I settled in for Stone mildly intrigued but expecting little. I was surprised by how deftly that sense of intrigue blossomed and held on right to the end.
Curran’s previous directorial credits include The Painted Veil and We Don’t Live Here Anymore, so it’s no wonder that he seems to take a special interest in flushing out the themes of marital disharmony in MacLachlan’s text. Stone spends much of his first encounter with Mabry boasting about how his wife’s a dime and quite possibly a nymphomaniac, while at the dame time insisting that she’s an alien—that’s the word he uses, “alien,” as in someone from another planet. (Was this picture made before or after The Fourth Kind?) Stone wants to know about Mabry’s marriage, how it works, how sexual interest is sustained over the decades, but Mabry proves to be the real stone in this relationship, refusing to disclose any personal details. The truth is that Mabry’s marriage to Madylyn (Frances Conroy), a tippling Bible thumper, appears deeply unhappy, probably sexless, and has probably been that way from the start, as the film’s disturbing prologue set in the early days of their domestic life clearly implies. This prologue is in fact utterly unnecessary—there’s no reason at all for us to know the specifics of Mabry’s dark side, and this dramatization, awkwardly using younger actors to play De Niro and Conroy, feels like something demanded by outside forces with little faith in an audience’s ability to read between the lines.
Curran doesn’t have the charm or penchant for aesthetic detours that Morrison displayed, but I wonder if his approach isn’t actually more closely aligned to MacLachlan’s intentions. In any case, I don’t think anything he does here really hurts the story’s integrity, and the device of manifesting Stone’s obsession with listening for that magic sound through an aural landscape of Christian radio broadcasts, insect buzzing, and an immersive piece of glassy ambient music from Jon Brion is accumulatively effective. As well, Curran should perhaps take some credit for bringing out the best in his leads. There’s an engrossing chemistry between De Niro and Norton, and a near palpable heat coming off of Jovovich, who imbues what could have been a one-dimensional supporting role with considerable complexity.
I'm not claiming the film is entirely successful on every front, but I worry that some viewers—most certainly some critics—might be put off by Stone simply because it’s hard to tell what this film’s trying to be. I’ve seen it described as a thriller, which feels way off the mark, and I’ve read Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review, which tries to finger at as failed neo-noir, which seems even more off the rails. Stone doesn’t adhere to genre, not does it defy genre in any flamboyant way. I don’t know what to call it, but I think its ambitions are noble and the results substantial… if you only listen closely enough.