The scene opens with a flashback to 30-some years earlier, with a young couple sitting quietly at home. The husband is watching golf on TV, the wife is making him a drink, as she has clearly done hundreds of times before. Somewhere in the house is their infant daughter. After preparing what she believes will be the last drink she’ll ever make for her husband, the wife announces that she’s leaving him. He is in disbelief, but rather than attempt to talk her out of it or understand her reasons, he runs upstairs to where their child is, grabs her, and dangles her out the second-story window. He’s clearly upset, but the words he speaks put the burden of keeping their daughter alive on his wife. “Don’t make me do it,” he screams, not in anger but desperation. It doesn’t take long for the wife to agree to stay.
Jump ahead to the present, when we see this same couple, much older now, played by Robert De Niro, as Jack a parole officer, and Frances Conroy as wife Madylyn, both of whom go through the empty routines of religion and life together. Jack is nearing retirement at the suburban Detroit prison where he works, and his last case is with a young convict nicknamed Stone (Edward Norton), a hard ass to be sure, but a man who seems willing and motivated to improve as his first parole hearing approaches. Their meetings are some of the best moments of acting I’ve seen all year, especially from De Niro, who hasn’t been this sustained amount of good in a movie in easily 10-15 years. His gift is dialing it back and playing Jack as a guy who has seen and heard it all from the prisoners that parade before him day after day. He clearly despises each and every one of them, but there’s something different about Stone, something that challenges him and makes him a little vulnerable.
It doesn’t hurt that Stone’s wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), has been hounding him to see if there’s anything she an do to improve the chances that Jack will recommend her husband for parole. Jack avoids her at first, but her undeniable beauty and overt sexuality eventually overwhelm Jack, who has never known, let alone talked at length to, a woman like Lucetta. And without too much effort, the two start sleeping together, and Jack’s world goes into a tailspin. A more obvious film would have turned this story into a classic blackmail tale in which Lucetta and Stone force Jack to approve Stone’s parole so they don’t tell Jack’s wife about the affair, but Stone is a much better movie than that. This is a film interested in the inner workings of its characters. Stone finds religion–as many prisoners do–but his conversion seems genuine. His questions about God and forgiveness and sin hit a chord with Jack that underscore the guilt he feels for the affair. The question that Stone keeps asking Jack is a variation on “What, you’ve never done anything wrong in your whole life?” And immediately, your mind flashes to that opening sequence. Jack is as much a prisoner and bully as Stone is.
Director John Curran (We Don’t Live Here Anymore and The Painted Veil, which also starred Norton) keeps a necessarily tight rein on De Niro and Norton, and the result is staggeringly strong performances from both, with De Niro reminding us that he’s the master of the nuanced, detailed performance. Jack’s every nervous tick and inability to express emotion is layered across De Niro’s furrowed brow. I’d go see the film again, just to watch him work; it’s been a long while since I’ve felt that way. Norton counters by being a little more brash and crude, but that’s completely appropriate for this prisoner with corn-rowed hair and a long-time inmates speech patterns and choice of four-letter words. The joy in Norton’s performance is the transformative qualities we see in Stone. He may have been attempting to placate and fool Jack in the beginning, but in pretending to be a better man, he actually started to become one, almost by accident, by simply thinking about his crimes.
The film’s genuine surprise is Jovovich, who is rarely given the opportunity on screen to exude her inherent sexuality like she does in Stone. She comes onto her husband on her visit to the prison one minute, brings home a stranger from a bar that night, and seduces Jack as methodically as one might plan a bank robbery. She’s a decent enough action star, but put her in scenes with some of the planet’s best actors, and she rises to the occasion.
Stone is a film that asks risky questions about what makes a person good or bad. Does going to church make you better than someone who doesn’t? Does admitting your guilt and paying your debt to society make you a worse human being than someone who simply never got caught? At what point in a person’s life are they beyond redemption? These are weighty thoughts to ponder, and Stone isn’t afraid to put them right in your face to consider them. Great acting and a compelling story–hey, that sounds like a movie worth seeing. Imagine that.