Very few things frustrate moviegoers more than lazy writing. This silent menace can manifest in many ways—inconsistencies in plot, trite dialogue, haphazard transitions, etc. Occasionally you’ll even see writers / directors try to achieve artistic subtlety by simply omitting details from their movies, thinking that neglecting to convey important information makes them mysterious and insightful, rather than just bad storytellers. Cases such as these might yield productions that resemble Stone, director John Curran’s (best known for The Painted Veil) latest effort, in which retiring parole officer Jack Mabry (the iconic Robert De Niro) takes on one final case for review that ends up turning his neat, repressed, vapid little world topsy-turvy.

De Niro satisfies the role of Mabry admirably, considering he seems well aware of the fact he doesn’t even have to try anymore. He coasts through the movie, looking every bit the disenchanted, unimpressed curmudgeon he is meant to portray. At times he seems as bored with the role as Mabry is with his life, as if the film presents a perfunctory task for him that must be fulfilled out of necessity—get up in the morning, make the bed, brush your teeth, act in Stone, take a shower, etc. You can no more critique a performance like that than you can evaluate the technique of someone’s morning routine, so back to the plot we go.

Things start to get exciting for Mabry when Gerald Creeson (Edward Norton), who prefers the nickname “Stone,” walks into his office, sporting corn rows, an indeterminate accent and an attitude that quickly gets beaten down when he tries it on the unshockable Mabry. Stone wants what any common criminal who had served eight years hard time for being an accomplice to his grandparents’ murder would want. He wants to be a free man—so much, in fact, that he’s willing to enlist the help of his young, breathtakingly beautiful wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), whose job is to work on Jack from the outside while Stone convinces him he’s ready for parole from the inside. And work on him she does, if you catch my drift.

At first the straight-laced, law-abiding Jack is reluctant to accept a bribe from such a persistent, mysterious woman, but his increasing lack of purpose and waning belief in his former values drive him to seek danger where he might have previously watched it pass. Frances Conroy plays Madylyn, his weathered and weary wife, who has sacrificed her entire existence to providing him with a sense of stability and well-being that he suddenly decides to so casually brush off. She is wise in her years, knowing that he no longer needs her, and that her steely devotion has served the sole purpose of wasting her own life. This all takes a very unexpected and unlikely toll on her.

The lives of these four very different characters converge over the course of the film in such a way that you think its outcome will be much more dramatic than it is. That's not to say that the understated quality of the actual conclusion is a drawback—quite the contrary, in fact. But the misleading clues set Stone up to be a different type of movie than the one we end up seeing is. Stone pulls you in so many different directions that you begin to start wondering if you’re misinterpreting something. You’re not. It’s no wonder you can’t figure out the overarching “message” of the film, because there are about four or five of them, some of which are in conflict. The tropes of religion and freedom are overused, vaguely explained and arbitrarily placed in the story, and the characters’ motivations become unclear at best and utterly inexplicable and unsupported at worst.

The only thing that really keeps you holding on is the acting, which is impressive and powerful. This shouldn’t surprise anyone since De Niro and Norton are both, quite frankly, just interesting to watch because you never know what they’re going to do next. Francis Conroy also really stands out in this picture for her quiet expressiveness. Even Milla Jovovich holds her own against these giants, though she can’t capture “trashy” quite as convincingly as Lucetta’s character seems to require, and when she tries, she just comes across as crazy. I couldn’t tell if this unclear character development was the fault of Stone’s writing or Jovovich’s acting, but considering the track record of the former, I’m willing to give the latter the benefit of the doubt, especially considering that the rest of her performance is eminently respectable.

All in all, I’m pretty sure this film is trying to say something about hypocrisy, identity, nihilism, religion and the illusory nature of reality, but those are all pretty broad topics that Stone simply isn’t cut out to tackle. If I could have ever figured out where the movie stands on any of the abstractions it so relentlessly belabors but apparently fails to understand, perhaps I could have decided if I agreed. As it is, I’m just glad life isn’t as arbitrary and indecisive as Stone.

Starring: Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Frances Conroy, Milla Jovovich

Director: John Curran

Runtime: 105 minutes

Distributor: Relativity Media

Rating: R

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