There are crimes and there are sins, and while society demands atonement for the former, many terrible sins are perfectly legal and atonement is up to the sinner. Writer-director John Curran explores these questions of official and personal morality in Stone, an intelligent but brutally portentous drama in the style of his 2004 marital drama We Don’t Live Here Anymore. He also gets a real, committed performance out of Robert De Niro, who’s spent much of the last decade lazily mugging his way through Meet The Parents comedies and genre stinkers like Hide And Seek and Righteous Kill—all of which suggest either good roles for him are limited or he simply doesn’t care like the De Niro of old. Whatever the case, De Niro plays a deeply flawed and hypocritical corrections officer with just the right mix of self-righteousness and vulnerability, embodying a man whose soul has withered from decades of corrosion.
De Niro goes toe-to-toe with Edward Norton, who stars as a corn-rowed (though non-racist) iteration of the wily, hyper-intelligent thug he immortalized in American History X. Having served eight years in prison for arson, Norton is up for parole, but his path to freedom goes through De Niro, whose recommendation will ultimately determine his fate. Mere weeks before his retirement, De Niro has been on the job long enough to see through Norton’s abrasive, confrontational pleas, so the inmate turns to a more drastic form of coercion, enlisting his sultry wife, played by Milla Jovovich, to coax out a favorable report. It happens that De Niro is a uniquely vulnerable mark, and as he gets drawn into their web, his past sins begin to resurface.
The title Stone is double-meaning, referring both to Norton’s nickname and the end of the Biblical tenet that begins, “Let him who is without sin…” At its best, the film works as a morally freighted film noir, with Jovovich particularly good as a breathy femme fatale who seduces De Niro with a mere change in inflection. But Curran resists Stone’s genre elements to his peril, suffocating the drama with a tone of high seriousness and unnecessary elements, like an omnipresent AM religious talk show that spells out themes that are already apparent. He doesn’t trust the story or his actors to bring the film across—and worst of all, he doesn’t trust the audience.