A misfire like Stone demonstrates just how hard it is to make a good film. The script, by Junebug screenwriter Angus MacLachlan, was intriguing enough to attract a talented director (John Curran from The Painted Veil) and an A-list star, Robert De Niro, whose attachment secured financing. De Niro’s former co-star Edward Norton (The Score) joined the cast and contributed his talents as an uncredited script polisher, along with director Curran. And Milla Jovovich signed on as the femme fatale, a role for which she’s eminently qualified. What could go wrong?
Apparently everyone forgot the script’s basic theme – all things human are corrupt, and everyone needs redemption.
Studio: Anchor Bay Entertainment
Film Length: 104 min.
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 (DD 5.1 compatibility track at 640kb/ps)
Subtitles: English SDH; Spanish
Disc Format: 1 50GB
Theatrical Release Date: Oct. 18, 2010
Blu-ray Release Date: Jan. 18, 2010
In a hazy flashback opening, we see Madlyn and Jack Mabry (played as a young couple by Pepper Binkley and Enver Gjokaj, Dollhouse’s “Victor”). They have a small daughter, but the marriage isn’t a happy one. Jack is both distant and volatile. Even in this short introductory sequence, the combination results in a scene of high melodrama.
Cut to the present, where Jack and Madlyn are now played by De Niro and Six Feet Under’s Frances Conroy. Jack is nearing retirement as a parole officer at a maximum security prison, but he wants to see his existing cases through to completion. One of them is Gerald “Stone” Creeson (Norton), who’s served eight years of a 10-15 year sentence for arson and accessory to murder. Stone swears he’s reformed, but with his cornrows, fast patter and antic demeanor, Stone looks to Jack like every other inmate who’s passed through his office for 40-odd years trying to con his way to freedom.
Yet Stone is more determined than most. During their first meeting, he boasts to Jack in explicit detail about the erotic talents of his wife, Lucetta (Jovovich), and he make inappropriate inquiries about Jack’s sex life. Jack immediately shuts him down, but soon enough Lucetta is calling Jack’s house and ambushing him in the prison parking lot. It’s not hard to see what the game is, and Jack sees it too – but there’s that volatile streak we glimpsed at the start of the film. And Lucetta is very persuasive. (Stone calls her “a alien”, and Jovovich plays her as a combination sex addict and psychopath, which is about right.)
For a while, Stone appears to be heading down the path of a psychological thriller peopled by competing manipulators with hidden agendas. But the film quickly goes slack, because it’s divided against itself. The filmmakers want to use the thriller genre to explore questions of sin and redemption that transcend simplistic human notions of crime and punishment. They signal their intentions during the credit sequence as Jack drives to work listening to radio preachers, whose voices overlap each other and drift around the surround speakers, talking about the corruption that is the fundamental fact of human existence. Now, there’s nothing wrong with using a thriller to get at larger questions, but to deliver on such aspirations, you first have to lay the groundwork by building the solid plot mechanics of an effective thriller. Stone doesn’t do that. It tries to get by on atmosphere and performance, and even a casual student of the genre could tell you that isn’t enough.
Take, for example, a critical sequence involving a violent incident at the prison. It occurs midway through the film and represents a turning point in ways that won’t be fully revealed until later. It’s the kind of scene that presents multiple opportunities for tension and suspense, but it ends up having little impact, because it violates Hitchcock’s primary rule for suspense by giving the audience zero information. Other than Stone, the scene involves people you haven’t met and know nothing about, and the events come out of nowhere without explanation. With no investment in the scene, the viewer remains detached from both the events and Stone’s reaction to them – and the latter is critical to how the rest of the plot unfolds.
De Niro, Norton, Jovovich and – in a small but pivotal role – Conroy all give perfectly good performances, but there isn’t a solid plot in which to ground them. They might as well be auditioning for a film that has yet to be written.
Whatever the issues with the movie, there aren’t any with the Blu-ray image. The picture is clean and detailed. Colors are well-delineated but tend toward the drab, as befits a film set largely in dreary places like prisons and cheap apartments. Black levels become somewhat inconsistent during night scenes, but I suspect this reflects the shooting style of French cinematographer Maryse Alberti, whose extensive documentary background prompts filmmakers to hire her when they want to shoot with a small crew and without elaborate lighting rigs (she also shot The Wrestler). Given the virtual absence of extras, the 50-GB disc gives the film plenty of breathing room, and I saw no digital artifacts.
Stone has elaborate sound editing that makes extensive use of the surrounds. The title sequence involving radio preachers has already been noted. Sequences in the prison are full of distant noises appropriate to that environment, as are scenes at the Mabrys’ country home. The musical soundtrack, which doesn’t appear to be credited to a single composer, is one of those unusual concoctions that is sometimes indistinguishable from ambient sound effects. Such tracks can be effective when blended with the right film , but unfortunately in Stone it’s just one more failed attempt to compensate atmospherically for the film’s inadequacies.
The Making of Stone (SD; 1.78:1, enhanced for 16:9) (6:16). An earnest, EPK-like effort that lets you know what everyone hoped they were doing. Interviewees included De Niro, Norton, Jovovich, MacLachlan and several of the producers.
Trailers. The film’s trailer is included as a separate extra. At startup, the disc plays trailers for Let Me In and Jack Goes Boating; these can be skipped with the chapter forward button and are separately available from the features menu.
Stone isn’t uninteresting, but it’s unsatisfying at every level. With so many films out there worthy of your attention, I can’t recommend wasting time on it.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (TrueHD decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub
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