Directed by John Curran
Out on DVD in the UK from 28 March
Starring Robert De Niro, Edward Norton and Milla Jovovich
The cases of Robert De Niro and Woody Allen seem to me parallel, if not related. Both are stars of the 1970s; both lost their way in the 1990s; both have become reliant on parodic imitations of their former selves to the extent that anyone now in their early twenties might well wonder what the fuss was about.
De Niro too often settles for run-of-the-mill parts that demand little more than gurning, ranting or the kind of casual walk-through that would have inspired contempt in the ambitious young turk of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver or Raging Bull. John Curran's carefully nuanced new film, Stone, presents De Niro with two challenges.
The first is the task of portraying a Midwesterner on the verge of retirement - the inarticulate, conservative Jack Mabry, a parole officer married for 43 years. It may sound easy, but the part demands studious underplaying.
The second challenge is that he is pitched against Edward Norton as the convict Gerald "Stone" Creeson, who attempts to persuade Mabry that after eight years behind bars he is ready for parole. Jack is seduced by Creeson's slinky wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), who offers him sex in return for a favourable report to the prison warden, arguing for her husband's early release; at the same time, Jack realises that in spite of years of going through the motions - a stable marriage, regular visits to church, and efficiency at work beyond the call of duty - he has lost all conviction. "Shit, man," says Creeson, "you don't believe in nothin', do you?"
Norton's challenge is even greater. His character goes from being desperate to please Mabry to being suicidally depressed, and then finds spiritual enlightenment such that he is able to advise Mabry not to listen to what Lucetta is saying. Describing Lucetta as an alien, a freak and an animal, Creeson tells his parole assessor to "do what you think is right - not what she tells you to do".
The writer, Angus Maclachlan, has provided several scenes in which Norton and De Niro spar with each other, extracts of which can be seen on the official website. Both actors seem constantly to raise the stakes, as if testing themselves. Of the two, there's no doubt in my mind that Norton does the more persuasive job. From the moment he appears, Creeson is desperate, wheedling, panicky, as if his character has been subtly undermined by the apprehension of some terrible fate in store. Yet by the end of the film he is a completely different man, confident in the assertion that he is "God's tuning-fork".
The film is fortunate in its supporting players, especially Frances Conroy as De Niro's wife, the long-suffering Madylyn. Conroy was one of the best things about the television series Six Feet Under (in which she played Ruth Fisher), since when she has been offered too few challenges on screen. The role of Madylyn is one she fills with understated emotion, and it is impossible to think of an actress who could have conveyed the same degree of inner torment through so few words. Some have criticised the script for failing to give her more - and it's true that, good as she is, one always wants to see her jump through yet another hoop - but I think the writer was correct to confine her as he has done.
Certainly, there are opportunities enough for her to reveal her powers. In one scene, sitting on the porch with De Niro, her god-fearing character spits a series of obscenities into the night air. It is one of the most powerful things you are likely to see on screen for a long time.
Stone tells two stories: one of damnation, the other of salvation. It is American in its focus on the religiosity of the Midwest, but that context is not confining. After all, De Niro's character is in some respects Shakespearean. His fall is largely self-inflicted, the result of flaws with which he has lived for years. "Blow up your motherfuckin' life," Creeson tells him. Mabry's tragedy is that he doesn't know how to.
There are problems with this film. The ending doesn't live up to its promise, alas. And while De Niro is good, he could have been better. However, for the pleasure of watching such talents as Conroy and Norton, this film is well worth the bother. It is also the only mainstream Hollywood feature of recent times that is prepared to conduct a debate with its audience on the pros and cons of reincarnation.