A man stumbles drunkenly down a dark alleyway in pursuit of his victim, pins him against a wall, and holds a revolver to his neck. It’s a familiar scene, but in John Curran’s “Stone,” it is parole officer Jack Mabry (Robert De Niro) who brandishes the gun, and convicted criminal “Stone” (Ed Norton) who finds himself within inches of his life. The scene is the culmination of a role-reversal between cop and criminal that builds over the course of the film.
Aging Detroit prison official Mabry is on the threshold of retirement, but decides to take on one last case: that of arsonist Gerald “Stone” Creason. Stone is hell-bent on shortening his sentence, and begins a dirty campaign to ensure that Mabry succeeds in ensuring his release. Mabry ostensibly knows the ropes, and is not about to let some eccentric inmate get inside his head, but a little meddling from Stone exposes some startling chinks in Jack’s armor.
Norton’s playful one-liners provide the perfect antidote to De Niro’s wizened stoicism. When Mabry accuses him of trying to make trouble, Stone replies, “I don’t want no beef with you. I’m gonna be a vegetarian.” Yet these humorous moments are few and far between. The more Mabry and Stone get to know each other, the more charged their meetings become. Soon Mabry finds himself confronting questions that never crossed his mind in all his years as a god-fearing instrument of justice.
Thus begins Mabry’s latter-life crisis. De Niro hurls himself into the role of ordinary workingman Mabry with terrifying gusto. As befits an actor of his monumental stature, De Niro is utterly absorbed in his role. The problem is that the more one sees of Jack, the less attractive his character becomes. “Stone” depicts the darker side of aging. Instead of becoming more sedate, Mabry drinks more often and more heavily. Instead of growing closer to his wife, he has an affair—with Stone’s vampy wife Lucetta (Milla Jovovich) who deliberately seduces him to help Stone’s cause. At his farewell party—which should be his finest hour—Mabry offends his few remaining friends.
His interaction with Stone seems to rob Mabry of his faith—a recurring theme in the film. Curran is very interested in the hypocrisy of religion, and the emptiness of ritual without belief. For example, though Mabry and his wife are devout Christians, they read passages from the Bible over generous tumblers of whiskey, their diction becoming increasingly slurred with every sip. In scenes of Mabry’s infidelity, the camera clings to his wedding ring as his hands caress Lucetta’s nubile body. The car radio is permanently tuned to a Christian radio station, but a meeting with his pastor fails to answer any of Mabry’s questions.
Curran’s treatment of religion also manages to combine some humor with its moralizing. In the prison library, Stone chances upon a pamphlet on Zukangor, a religion that advocates listening into the humming of the cosmos. One cannot be sure whether he really buys into the philosophy, or if he’s just toying with it to aggravate Mabry. Norton nails the slippery attitude which Mabry finds so galling. Yet by the end of the film, Stone’s mind is at ease, while Mabry’s is increasingly tormented.
While Curran’s handling of religion is sensitive, his treatment of the ambiguity between criminal and cop is clumsier. The film seems driven by a nagging inevitability that De Niro’s convincing performance can do nothing to deflect. Once Curran’s direction becomes clear, and it does so quite early in the film, the film begins to drag a little.
The film’s biggest flaw, however, is that it so thoroughly alienates viewers from the protagonist. Norton’s endearing rendition of Stone wins the audience over from the start. Our first glimpse of Mabry, in a flashback from his young adulthood, is unappealing, but he seems like a fundamentally good guy. By the end of the film, however, the audience feels nothing for Mabry, not even pity. Part of the problem is that De Niro is just too good. He understands his character so thoroughly that he cannot bring himself to endow Mabry with any redeeming qualities, which is to his credit as an actor, but to the detriment of the film as a whole.