It's been a long time since I cared about Robert De Niro's work in a movie, mainly because it feels like it's been a long time since he cared.

I don't mean De Niro's a hack, and I'm not trying to be insulting.  It's just that there was a time when De Niro's name meant something more than just "very good actor."  He was one of the most driven performers on the planet, a guy who would resculpt himself, physically and spiritually, from role to role.  I grew up in awe of De Niro, and I'll never forget the thrill that came with each new role.  Somewhere along the way, though, two things happened that changed my feelings about him as an actor and that altered the way the industry viewed him in general.  First, someone told him he was funny.  The truth is that he was much, much funnier before Hollywood realized he was funny.  The second thing is that he just seemed to settle into one general De Niro look, one basic character that he plays from film to film.  For the longest time, there was no "real" De Niro, and now, it seems that's all there is.

Walking into "Stone," I was very curious based on an interview I did at SXSW this year with Edward Norton.  He talked about the experience on this film as one of his favorites, and in particular, he talked about how great De Niro was in his role.  I wasn't fond of the last film Norton and director John Curran made together, "The Painted Veil," but I was willing to give this one a shot just based on Norton's extreme enthusiasm for it.

Glad I did, too, because "Stone" is a strange, moving, intense experience, and as I've let the film settle in, it's grown in my memory.  And it's strange seeing it here at Fantastic Fest.  Along with "Let Me In," Overture has done both of these films at both of these festivals.  "Let Me In" feels like the Fantastic Fest film, while "Stone" feels like the Toronto film.  Having said that, I think "Stone" is a movie that will require some special TLC to get it across to an audience, and even then, I'm not sure there's any easy way to sell what this is.

The trailer makes it look like the story of a convict who tries to use his wife to manipulate the man who can recommend him (or not) for parole from prison.  It looks like some sort of barely-classed-up erotic thriller from the trailers or from a short synopsis like that.  In reality, Angus MacLachlan's screenplay for "Stone" refuses to tell the easy version of the story, instead throwing in complications to the characters that keep you off-balance as a viewer throughout, never letting you settle in for an easy-to-describe thing, and John Curran gives the film a simmering sense of unease that kept me perpetually nervous as I watched.

The film does indeed tell the story of a relationship between Stone (Edward Norton) and Jack (Robert De Niro), a parole officer nearing the end of his career.  He's a methodical man, set in his ways, locked in a marriage with Madylyn (Frances Conroy) that feels like a tomb, and an unsettling prologue set in the early days of that marriage set me on edge right away.  Stone has already served years on his sentence, and he genuinely believes he should be allowed to go at this point.  He's not looking to scam Jack so much as he's looking to convince him, but without the conversational tools that would make that possible.  Every conversation between them at first is a new opportunity for Stone to say the exact wrong thing and convince Jack that he's just another animal, just another lifer with a bad attitude.  Stone can see his chances slipping away, and he vents his fears to Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), his wife.  She picks up on his anxieties, and she approaches Jack outside of work, determined that she's going to find a way to convince Jack to let Stone go.  And while at first it looks like a classic honey trap, with the hyper-sexual Lucetta pushing Jack until he finally buckles and gives in.

Dealing with spirituality of any kind in film is difficult, so the thing that impressed me most in the film is the way both Jack and Stone deal with their very different spiritual journeys, with Lucetta as the common link between them.  Lucetta doesn't want any sort of spiritual understanding or inner life.  She is a carnal creature, pure and simple, and all she wants is her man.  She needs someone else.  She needs to see desire on someone's face.  She needs to feel some sort of heat reflected back to her.  She's not just uninterested in all things spiritual, she is offended by them, and watching Stone deal with an awakening of sorts disturbs her.  The reason Jack is so fascinating to her is because she senses something in him that is ugly like her, empty like her, filled with the same sort of toxic need that she's filled with.  These three people end up affecting each other, but not in the way any of them intend at the start of the film, and not in a way that feels neat and clean like in many films.

Edward Norton is excellent as Stone, a smart guy without the education to back it up.  I don't know how he did it, short of swallowing a toy whistle and intentionally getting it to stick halfway down, but Norton's adopted a strange sort of wheeze in every word he speaks that suggests a frailty of form that isn't matched to the intensity of spirit he exhibits.  Much of his time in the film is spent engaged in a verbal dance with De Niro, and here's where I think the film is really special.  De Niro delivers a sort of master class here on minimalism, and he seems determined to get the biggest possible fireworks out of the simplest moments.  He and Norton are amazing at illustrating the way power shifts back and forth between these two, and De Niro does a great job of bringing to life this man's bent and withered soul, while only revealing it a bit at a time.  And without the work by Milla Jovovich here, the film wouldn't work.  Early on, Stone is talking about his wife and mentions that she's a "space alien," and it's obvious what he means once we get to know Lucetta.  She is such a wild spirt, so unfettered, that she's not really connected to the way people behave, and seems to have no interest in changing.  Jovovich has given so much of her career over to the action movies that I think people underrate her, and it's a shame.  This is a real reminder of just how good she can be, and it's a feral, upsetting performance, impressive work, and she is every bit as good as Norton and De Niro in the film, which is no small compliment.

A moody mediation on broken people struggling with the very idea of grace, "Stone" will not sit well with every audience, but I found real transcendence in the way this story was told, and in the souls that stand revealed by the film's conclusion.

"Stone" opens in theaters October 8.

 

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