Screen Rant's Kofi Outlaw Reviews Stone
Stone is a movie that at first glance appears to be a slow-burn erotic thriller, a la Body Heat. However, once it starts rolling, it quickly becomes apparent that this film is pure arthouse - a meditative look at identity, morality and spirituality in the modern age.
The film stars Robert De Niro as Jack Maybury, a veteran parole officer just a few days short of retirement. One of Jack's final cases involves a longtime inmate named Stone (Ed Norton), who was convicted nearly a decade prior as an arsonist and accomplice to murder. Stone will be a free man if he can just convince Jack that he is a changed man - so to ensure his chances of release, Stone sends his beautiful wife Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), a walking man-eater, to seduce Jack.
As I said, at first glance that premise sounds like it has all the right ingredients to make for an interesting and engaging erotic thriller. However, it's in the execution of this story that Stone takes on another shape entirely.
The story was written by Angus MacLachlan, who wrote the much-lauded Junebug, another film which took a familiar premise (yuppie city boy returns to his humble down-South roots) and stretched it into a great arthouse film that explored the themes of family and identity. The director of Stone is John Curran, who has turned in some highly-respected indie dramas like We Don't Live Here Anymore and The Painted Veil (a film he also worked with Norton on).
Stone combines a strong cinematic vision with well-developed characters who are brought to life by talented actors, in order to venture into waters that some might otherwise find too heady if not for these great guides who are leading us along. Much of what the film focuses on is spirituality, morality and how those concepts coincide (or don't) with our respective roles in life. Stone is a convict who has a metaphysical awakening to morality and spirituality via a strange religion he discovers in the prison library; Jack is the man who decides whether so-called "evil men" have truly redeemed themselves, even while he is slowly being imploded by the spiritual and moral vacuum inside of him.
Most of the film's greatest moments come from scenes in which the actors are simply left to interact freely with one another. Stone and Jack's clinical conversations leading up to Stone's parole review are especially great; Norton and De Niro play off each other wonderfully (the pair also had great chemistry in The Score), with Norton particularly taking hold of the reigns as Stone, who he portrays as a crude but moral man who is wise in his own simpleton way.
The ladies in the film are equally as great (MacLachlan has talent for writing female characters - just ask Amy Adams, who got a Supporting Actress Oscar nom for Junebug). Milla Jovovich puts her Resident Evil action persona to shame playing Lucetta, a woman who is complex in every sense of the word. Just let me attempt to describe her character: a wild and beautiful schoolteacher nymph who is completely devoid of any spiritual or moral compass and operates by one singular code of ethics: "I do what I want." While Jovovich certainly looks beautiful in the buff during many of the film's erotic moments, certain scenes of her and De Niro I didn't need to see.
Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under) is great as Jack's wife, Madylyn, a marginalized soul who is slowly and silently withering away unnoticed (by either the characters or the audience) until she finally decides to reclaim her existence with a vengeance. It might seem like the men in this film are the focus, but it is the ladies who truly hold the power.
Curran is a very smart and economical director, and while Stone might seem to some viewers like a jumbled assortment of slowly-paced scenes, the imagery that Curran presents is pure visual metaphor that heightens the story's metaphysical themes at every turn. For those who are able to turn on their arthouse filter and open themselves to the range of levels Curran is working on, there is a lot to see here; movie goers who have more mainstream tastes are likely to get bored waiting for "something to happen."
As for pacing, Stone builds slowly but succeeds in reaching a climax that turns all the philosophical and metaphysical themes at work into something thrilling, without the film losing its identity by slipping into your standard over-the-top movie melodrama. The drama that does unfold feels real, and more importantly, earned; the places in which these characters ultimately find themselves feels smart, logical and insightful in its commentary about the modern human condition.
I left this film with many new thoughts in mind, as well as that rare quality you only get from good cinema: a new (or at least revised) outlook on my own life and existence. A strange thing to receive from what seemed to be a standard erotic thriller - but for those hungry, Stone offers plenty of food for thought.