'Stone': Robert De Niro's Underappreciated Thriller

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Millennium Films


Host Ricky Gervais made all the headlines with his scorched-earth jokes at Sunday night's Golden Globes, but Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Robert De Niro nearly matched him for irreverence, if not for comic timing. During his jarring stand-up routine of an acceptance speech, De Niro poked fun at other celebrities, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and his own latest film, the critically reviled Little Fockers. He even made light of the hard work that he felt had gone unnoticed. Responding to the introductory clip reel, the actor said: "I think you would've enjoyed seeing a few seconds of Stanley & Iris, Everybody's Fine, Frankenstein, Marvin's Room, Stone. Some of you would be seeing them for the first time. ... Most of you would be seeing them for the first time. ... You didn't even watch the screeners, did you?"

That last entry in De Niro's list of unjustly overlooked movies, Stone, arrives on home video this week. The 2010 film, directed by John Curran (of the serviceable 2006 W. Somerset Maugham adaptation The Painted Veil) and written by Angus MacLachlan (of the superb Junebug), didn't even top $2 million at the domestic box office, despite its event-drama casting of De Niro opposite Edward Norton. The mixed reviews certainly didn't help. Too bad, because Stone is an unusually compelling film featuring performances—from De Niro, Norton, and Milla Jovovich—that stand shoulder to shoulder with much of the work currently being feted at coast-to-coast gala ceremonies.

Stone concerns the push-and-pull between a retiring parole officer, Jack Mabry (De Niro), and a corn-rowed arsonist and accessory to murder, Gerald "Stone" Creeson (Norton), who has done eight years out of 10-to-15 in a Detroit penitentiary. The tight-lipped Jack appears to enjoy golf and not much else. He's unhappily married, and he has just lost his older brother—the person who, as Jack says in his eulogy, taught him how to "live right." He is, at least, respected at work. For his part, Stone will do anything to ensure his early release. He sends his equally manipulative wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), to make advances on Jack; sensing Jack will look kindly on a "reborn" convict, Stone goes shopping for faiths in the prison library.

He comes across a pamphlet, and an accompanying book, for something called "Zukangor," which Stone later describes to Jack as a striving, by way of chanting and listening, to become "God's tuning fork. ... But there's no priest or nothing. It's not like a religion. There's just this one dude named Arnold who's the Zuk-master." The Zukangor pamphlet later shows up in the hands of Jack's wife, Madylyn (Frances Conroy, in perpetual drunken tremor), who dismisses it as "junk mail." She nonetheless reads it aloud to Jack one night on the porch, as they sip their customarily enormous amounts of whiskey. "Did you know you started out as a stone?" she reads from a section of the New Agey pamphlet that describes the transmigration of souls, suggesting also why this particular message spoke to Stone in the first place. While Madylyn reads about the mineral stage of the soul, Curran cuts to what resemble actual rows of corn.

The jury is out on whether this shot is meant to subliminally evoke Stone the character and his coiffure or just as a quick canvassing of the Middle American soil. But Stone does sometimes lapse into ham-handedness—recurring symbols include relentlessly buzzing bees and hard-boiled eggs. The mood is likewise applied a little too thickly. The film's soundtrack, with uncredited contributions from Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood and Jon Brion, drones rather lugubriously. The atmospherics really shift into high gear after Stone has what his paperwork describes as "a profound spiritual epiphany" while witnessing a brutal prison ambush. But it doesn't appear to be part of the angle he's working: As Stone shuffles around with an otherworldly look in his eyes (Norton, with the hardest role here, shifts on a dime from slick operator to space case), he appears to lose interest in becoming a free man. Meanwhile, Jack carries on an affair with Lucetta, with their black-background sex scenes appearing to take place in some sort of void.

For all its stylistic excesses, though, Stone asks genuinely provocative questions about belief and redemption. Jack is a nominal Episcopalian and a devout listener to Christian talk radio. He goes through all the motions, singing hymns at church and saying grace at home. But he lacks any true convictions, and—perhaps more crucially to the film's message—the will to confront his own misdeeds, past and present. He has passed judgment over others for a living, excusing his failings by comparing them to those of murderers and other miscreants, and thus essentially refusing to engage in any form of moral introspection. And so Stone has the power of Zukangor; Madylyn has the Bible; Lucetta, an atheist, nonetheless sees in life a pattern, a game to be played; and, not unlike A Serious Man's Larry Gopnik, Jack is simply cast adrift, left to weather the gathering storm of daily existence with only his own bitterness and self-pity.

Stone, anchored by the increasingly desperate and resentful character of Jack, is so serious and despairing that perhaps it's no real surprise that hardly anyone paid to see it in theaters last fall. But if it's a depressing film, it's rarely gratuitously so: Each misfortune is a vital part of its inquiry into the nature of absolution. De Niro certainly isn't wrong in asserting that the film deserves inclusion in any career-spanning clip reel, alongside his more memorable work.

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Benjamin Mercer has written on film for The Village Voice, The New York Sun, The L Magazine, and Reverse Shot. He is a copy editor at Bookforum. More

He has also copyedited for two New York dailies: The New York Sun and amNewYork.

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