Wednesday, October 27, 2010

TALL TALES with Edward Norton #2: STONE

Why 'tall tales'? Because I don't want to sell the actor short ;)

'Oh, and SPOILERS'

What does a man have to do to get through the last stage of retirement?  Why a good ol' mind-fucker-game of course.  Robert De Niro plays Jack Mabry, a parole officer for his whole career in some rural area of Michigan.  His latest case, one of the ones he will get through before he's all gone from the job, is Stone (Edward Norton).  Sure, that's not his 'real' name, but why not, call him what he likes.  Stone burned down the house his grandmother was in years before, and he's up for parole (he served time for arson, not murder as it turns out).  But Stone has something else in mind: he wants to connect on a human level with this guy Jack.  All Jack wants to do is to get this guy processed, and he doesn't really have a good sense about him.  At least, not at first.

This is a mind-game type of movie that provides so much in the way of character for its actors and gives them so much to work with - not least of which De Niro and Norton, two of the finest and most intense actors of their respective generations, who previously worked on the underrated heist flick The Score - that it's a shame that ultimately the plot kind of twists and turns itself into some knots to try and make some sense, when it actually doesn't.  I have to wonder the logic in a guy like Stone: how can he make a guy like Jack believe he's genuinely changed if a) his religious conversion in jail might seem like a lark to most involved who may not be seeing him by himself in his jail cell as his mind goes all over the place, and more importantly b) that he is kind of pimping his wife out (or she is pimping herself out) to Jack in order to curry some favor on the outside?  Furthermore, shouldn't Jack know better?

Oh, that's something else I should mention before going any further: this is a time for Milla Jovovich to shine as an actress.  Somehow she has a way of finding herself into plots that have rich character if not rich story (last year's A Perfect Getaway was another), and here she really gets to stretch her legs (some pun intended) with her flirty "animal" of a character Lucetta.  It's hard to peg Lucetta's motives: is she screwing around literally and figuratively with Jack because she wants to, or all part of the greater-plot-to-get-Stone-out?  Or is she even genuinely attracted to the grubby old guy?  She writhes around and wiggles in some scenes and has a look in her eye like a dirty descendant of a femme fatale.  All of these characteristics are fulfilled by Jovovich.  That she's also rarely been so sexy and dangerous on camera is a testament to her skills when she's NOT in Resident Evil movies.

Speaking of motives, this is where the other characters, and by proxy the actors, come into play as the kind of joyfully mixed bag.  I loved seeing how Norton's character goes through some changes in the film, and yet there's always (perhaps as a flaw) the nagging feeling that it could all be for not.  But, and maybe I've been suckered in like a fresh-faced gent at a used car lot, I was sucked in to Stone's arc where he gets sucked into a religious epiphany of sorts involving a bee hum.  We're also lead to believe another character at the start of the film and then another at the end get that same epiphany.  I don't know if I believe, however, for a moment that director John Curran wants to make some big point about religious fervor or redemption.  It's really all about what's subjective; one of the most effective and startling scenes is when Luetta comes to visit Stone, she's all excited about the possible plan coming to shape for the possible appeal... and Stone is just off in his own zone, buzzing away about his connection to God.

Jack also gets a full character as well, a very flawed man who put his wife (Frances Conroy) into a troubled marriage by means of entrapment as we see in the first weirdly intense scene of the movie.  Jack prays at the table, he keeps his vigil on the front porch, he says little of any real love for his wife, who herself is submerged in Jesus and alcohol (whether she believes it totally is also in question, she's thankfully kept a little more subtle in her portrayal).  And now he has this Stone character fucking with him, working on him.  It's a strange thing in the movie Stone as I kept going back and forth about the story.  At times I was completely sucked in, gripped by the raw emotional power that was in it (there's a scene where violence and sex cut back and forth in rough style), and other times I was wondering when the twist would come.

As it turns out, the twist is pretty much expected, or rather is expected in the gradual scheme of things.  But I would still tell people to see Stone for its big four actors, especially Norton who does give an eerie, believable performance with overtones of menace, compassion, insanity and a sharp intelligence, and De Niro, who perhaps compared to some of the crap he's been in over the past decade really gets a chance to shine in that gruff way he has about him.  On one hand as a character study it has a lot of odd contours that could become clearer or more fleshed out on a repeat viewing.  On the other hand it tries to pull some logical gaffs about the nature of a parole-officer job and his subject in the face of making bigger statements about the existentialism.

Hey, you can trust a face like mine... can't you?

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