x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

De Niro puts in a rock solid performance

Edward Norton and Robert De Niro star in Stone, about a cop and and a convict struggling with their beliefs

Edward Norton plays an arsonist in the film Stone.
Edward Norton plays an arsonist in the film Stone.

Director: John Curran

Starring: Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Milla Jovovich, Frances Conroy

It's been a long time since the name Robert De Niro guaranteed anything much in terms of quality, but the man formerly known as "the greatest actor of his generation" can still turn it on when the mood takes him. He showed flashes of that engagement in last year's Everybody's Fine, but the movie as a whole wasn't worthy of his efforts. 

In Stone, he's better served by his collaborators, chief among them Edward Norton and the director John Curran - though in the end, of course, it all comes down to the screenplay, in this case a strange, solemn piece by Angus MacLachlan (Junebug). 

De Niro plays a parole officer, Jack, who is working through his last few case files before retirement. Norton is Gerald "Stone" Creeson, eight years into a 12-year stint for arson. The severity of that sentence makes more sense when we realise that his grandparents' bodies were in the house he burnt down, shortly after his accomplice murdered them. 

When we first see Stone, his hair is braided in tight cornrows to his skull, and his attitude to the parole officer is a volatile combination of anger, hostility and cynicism. He feels he's paid his dues and then some; remorse is not in his nature. 

Jack's probings are quickly rebuffed, but Stone does loosen up when he talks about his wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), who he asks to appeal his case in person.

If this sounds like a fairly conventional film noir set up, Curran and MacLachlan have something more spiritual in mind. A powerfully edited prologue sets the scene several decades earlier, and makes us wonder by what right Jack sits in judgement over others. His patiently suffering wife (Frances Conroy) has embraced religion, but Jack's own beliefs are skin deep. 

When Stone announces a spiritual awakening just weeks before his parole hearing, Jack assumes it is a cynical ploy to win him his freedom (so does Lucetta), but we can't be so sure. The convict has something his parole officer lacks… Call it faith, belief, or simply - appropriately enough - conviction. 

Curran directed Norton in The Painted Veil a couple of years ago, an exotic costume drama on an epic scale. Here the focus is intimate and internalised; he keeps the camera tightly trained on the faces of the actors. 

De Niro and Norton respond with committed, intense performances that represent some of their best work in years. Curran layers the audio with the sound and fury of the evangelical call-in shows, which Jack listens to as he drives to and from the state penitentiary. In the end though, it's all just so much noise - his failure to see and to hear the genuine change in Stone is what damns him. 

You may not buy the film's melodramatic final reckoning, but at least this unusual, ambitious drama provides plenty of food for thought.