Stone should re-open a few burning cinema-fan questions: Is Milla Jovovich really an actress, or just a hot-bodied model who knows how to move around a movie set? When did a frown become Robert De Niro's primary acting tool? Why isn't Frances Conroy more of a household name? Is it possible for Edward Norton to turn in a bad performance? Is director John Curran one intense dude, or what?
This is a film that lingers in a slow, hot burn that you expect to burst into flames... and yet it never does, figuratively. That it remains white-hot throughout in spite of the absence of typically de rigueur overacting and action sequences is a tribute to Curran's restraint—and good sense in leveraging the audience's sense of his cast's strengths... and weaknesses. This is the rare film these days in which star power isn't mostly squandered.
The story is remarkably simple: Corrections officer Jack Mabry (De Niro) has spent a life going through the motions, passing judgment on whether inmates are ready for parole or not. Case-in-point con Stone (Norton) is an apparent sociopathic murderer always angling for advantage, and he’s not the least bit bashful about using his femme fatale girlfriend Lucetta (Jovovich) to, uh, influence Mabry's decision-making process. Lucetta's not the least bit bashful, either. You know. Meanwhile, Jack's long-suffering wife Madylyn (Conroy)... well, that’s enough about her.
You don't need a roadmap to get the drift of the rest of the plot.
Higher Stakes Than Others
Now, Jovovich. Yes, we've seen her nude before. She looks good that way. Is it appropriate here? Well, it certainly helps put the audience in Mabry’s court. And in a way, it puts us complicitly in Stone's, too. Lucetta's a convincing seductress, and she's a key player in Stone's realm of influence. But... as the key supporting player upon whose actions the plot turns, Jovovich does not strike me as being up to the chore of making Lucetta three-dimensional. Now, to be fair: Was Sharon Stone three-dimensional in Basic Instinct? Was Kathleen Turner three-dimensional in Body Heat? Naw, and not really. Jovovich is at least as serviceable here; but when it comes to high-grade actresses willing to bare it all, I think Marisa Tomei would have been more convincing in this role—and been a better match for Norton's Stone. Stone is also a far more serious film that Heat or Instinct, so "as good as Turner or Stone" really doesn't wash. The stakes are higher.
It's harder to discuss De Niro's, Norton's, and Conroy's performances without giving too much away. Let's just say that it's good that screenwriter Angus MacLachlan's story features not just a single protagonist. Usually, a good script puts an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances and then, through the rising action of the plot, which turns upon a central conflict, that ordinary person changes in some fundamental fashion as a byproduct of resolving the plot.
A notable recent example is Edge of Darkness, in which Thomas Craven is pushed over the edge—not by his daughter's murder, per se, but by the seemingly calloused indifference with which her death is investigated. And here, Mabry isn't the only character who's pushed over an edge. What's particularly interesting here are the edges to which these three characters draw near, and the directions from which they approach.
Is that cryptic enough for you?
Actors Never Been Better or More Memorably Used
Edge of Darkness is a very valid comparison for speaking indirectly about Stone. In addition to setting up Craven's transformation, Darkness also countered with a worthy nemesis who, like Craven, was compelled by events to depart from his chosen amoral path. The film also leveraged public perception of its star, Mel Gibson, to guide audience response to Craven.
So let's just say that De Niro, Norton, and Conroy have probably never been better or more memorably used.
With audience reaction addressed, the question for John Curran in that regard is: Does he ultimately feel any better about the way he uses his actors than Stone does about Lucetta? Or is that perhaps part of the filmmaker's point this time out? Is Curran Stone, and are De Niro, Norton, Conroy, and Jovovich all Lucetta? Are we Mabry? Maybe. And maybe I don't know Jack.
Intense Portrayal of Faith Transforming Life
One thing is for certain. You're not likely to soon see a more intense portrayal of what faith can do to transform a life. The "heroes of the faith" chapter in the biblical "Letter to the Hebrews," chapter 10, describes in action what Hebrews 11:1 calls "the conviction of things unseen." It's the kind of radical course change that that sends Abram out of Ur, that leads Moses into the wilderness. It's the kind of drive that blows Christopher Columbus into the East Indies, that drops Lewis and Clark at the edge of the wild and says, "God be with you."
Who cares if that faith is misguided? Stone takes us to the edge and drops us off. What comes next? Who knows?
Stone is rated R for strong sexuality and violence, and pervasive language. Yup. But this isn't trashy. It's intended for mature-minded adults.
Courtesy of a local publicist, Greg attended an advance, private opinion-makers' screening of Stone in which the makers were assessing the religious community’s reception of the film.