Character studies. They might be the most misunderstood movies in the business. Those who do understand them love them when they’re done right. When the perfect balance of performance and direction create dynamic moments through character and to a lesser extent the story, we get pretty excited. I watched Stone recently, and I got pretty excited. But that’s not the experience a lot of folks had. Perhaps because the film had a limited release in just over 100 theaters nationwide, the idea that it was an art-house or festival film might have put the mainstream folks off a bit. I would have thought that a cast that featured both Robert De Niro and Edward Norton would have more than compensated for the perception. Still, the film has not been treated very kindly by moviegoers and many critics. Again, I think that’s because there are still a lot of people out there, critics included, who still don’t understand the nature of a character study.
Jack (De Niro) works at a prison. He’s a probation officer who must evaluate potential parolees for the parole board. His job is to sit with them and hold conversations akin to counseling sessions to get a feel for where their head is at. He makes his recommendation, and it carries a lot of weight, so he literally has these men’s future in his hands. His wife (Conroy) is deeply religious, and the couple read from the Bible each night. The film’s opening vignette reveals that Jack was a violent and unstable man in his youth and has obviously settled down. But now he appears to go through life numb. He’s about to retire, and he’s searching rather desperately for some meaning in his life. His worldview is about to be shaken with his final case.
Stone (Norton) has been in prison for a fire that killed his grandparents. He is now eligible for parole. He wants to get out and rejoin his own wife (Jovovich). He talks about sound as a religious experience, becoming a tuning fork for God. It’s never completely clear if he’s shining Jack on or has truly been captivated by the spiritual philosophy. His conversations with Jack become somewhat of a cat-and-mouse game, but they do reveal genuine facets of each other’s true personalities.
Enter Stone’s wife Lucetta. Stone has encouraged her to try to communicate with Jack and convince him to recommend parole. At first Jack completely deflects the communications, finally agreeing to have coffee with the woman. The relationship becomes flirtatious. She seduces him. Before long the line between these characters begins to fade and they become mingled, entangled in a complicated dynamic where motives are blurred and agendas are interwoven.
The first thing that a character study must have, of course, is character. There are four compelling characters here, each played by actors in complete control of their craft. Robert De Niro has been better, but he brings something very un-De Niro-like to the table. He’s not the bull in the china shop this time. He’s quiet and more subtle than you’re used to seeing him. I’m impressed at how much the actor was able to pull back on Jack. De Niro will never be confused with a silent actor, but he pulls it off here quite convincingly. You truly understand that this man is adrift in his life. If he were younger, you’d say he was having a mid-life crisis. He is having a crisis, and his interaction with Stone and Lucetta have triggered something that he doesn’t quite understand. He suspects he’s being used. He’s not naive. Perhaps his relationship with Lucetta is allowing him to feel something for the first time in a while. He was once a violent man, and it’s likely that shutting off that part of his personality has eventually restricted his ability to feel anything in his life anymore. It’s a deep character that we could psychoanalyze all day.
Edward Norton does the most evolving throughout the movie. His appearance changes as he does from moment to moment, scene to scene. Norton does a tremendous job of capturing the conflicting emotions a person in this predicament must, by necessity, be feeling. He’s trying to get out after eight years being institutionalized. He knows what his wife is doing to make that happen, and it has to be quite a conflicting set of emotions. He’s struggling with a spirituality of sorts. He’s a man in transition, and Norton allows us to feel all of these things without them having to be mentioned.
Milla Jovovich hasn’t really had as many opportunities to deliver emotionally in a character. Her Resident Evil fame has presented her with more-do-less-think kinds of roles. She was the unknown wildcard here. I had pretty much confidence that De Niro and Norton could pull this off. I wasn’t so sure about Jovovich. She’s quite surprising here. You’ll see a side of the actress I don’t think you’ll expect or see coming. This is not just a matter of a pretty face playing a seductive role. There are real feelings involved here, and she delivers them. She holds her own with both of these men, and that’s an accomplishment right there.
Finally, there is Francis Conroy, perhaps best known as the Fisher mom on 6 Feet Under. She’s considerably underused here. She’s settled into an uncomfortable silence with Jack that has a few breaking points along the way. I’m afraid that the clever script doesn’t really give her the kind of character gold here. She does make the best of everything she is given, however. There just isn’t a weak link in this cast chain.
The Angus MacLachlan script is a smart one. It doesn’t intrude with too much information. Together with the solid direction of John Curran, they let these performances tell the whole story. There’s plenty of atmosphere here. There’s great contrast between the almost-isolated ranch house that Jack shares with his wife and the heavily-populated workplace of the prison. There’s a wonderful scene where Jack is alone in a field that brings home the alienation. If the film has a flaw at all, it is in the overt use of religious symbolism. It’s a legitimate complaint that makes viewers waste time looking for things that aren’t important. That’s fine, except it’s likely to distract from everything that is.
The pace is pretty much a slow burn throughout the first third of the film. It’s like a slow fuse that you find yourself mesmerized by. You know they’ll be an explosion that will rip you out of your hypnotic state, and it does come, just not in the way you might expect. There are plenty of character twists that add some dimension to this complicated circular relationship. A Christian radio station in the background provides some symbolic narrative that offers some clues to Jack’s state of mind if you listen carefully enough.
Stone is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 30 mbps. The image is often a bit on the soft side. I’m sure there is an artistic intent to the lack of color and often focus. Detail picks up on the close shots. I can guess that it’s Curran’s way of letting you know that it’s the characters you should be focusing on as well. The print’s in perfect condition. Black levels are average. There are some issues with shadow definition. I found it often hard to make out a lot of detail in the darker moments.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is often a bit muddy. There isn’t a lot of power to the audio presentation. Dialog is not always so easy to understand, and that’s a problem with this kind of a film. Again, there is an attempt at understatement that can interfere with your enjoyment of the film. There’s not much of a dynamic range to speak of, and the surrounds lay pretty silent throughout.
Making Of Stone: (6:16) This is very much a promotional piece.
I watched the film with others and have fielded some opinions from another handful who saw the film. I hear complaints that it was slow or difficult to understand. That there was too much symbolism and not enough action. When I asked them to tell me what they thought of the performances, there was often silence or a reluctant acknowledgement that they were pretty good. Of course, they were somewhat better than pretty good. Robert De Niro might very well be the king of the character study. Raging Bull and Taxi Driver are two of the most intense character study films ever made. If you think back to these films, you likely can’t remember a lot of specific plot points. What you remember are the performances. The moments that stay with you forever are personal to the film’s central character. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, what was that film about? Was the story really very compelling? Or, was it Nicholson’s performance and that of his fellow cast members that stick with you? Stone is certainly not on par with those classic movies. But it does deserve a mention in the same conversation. If you’ve seen the film and didn’t quite get it, take another look. If you haven’t yet seen the movie, I urge you to pick it up soon. When you sit down to watch, don’t try to follow the story. It’s rather simplistic and doesn’t really require a lot of your attention. Allow these characters to “do their thing” and you’ll walk away with a rewarding experience you just might have missed. When you talk about character studies, Stone is the real deal. With just the actors’ performances, Stone will “give you pictures in your head that’ll keep you up nights”.