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DeNiro and Edward Norton in "Stone" Movie: Unexpected and Brilliant

The trailer for John Curran's Stone (Overture, 10.8) makes it seem like a more-or-less conventional crime melodrama. In the midst of evaluating an apparently psychopathic convict (Edward Norton) regarding an upcoming parole hearing, a retirement-age prison counselor (Robert De Niro) succumbs to sexual favors offered by the prisoner's scheming wife (Milla Jovovich). We all know where this is likely to go. Exposure, revenge, moral ruin, chaos.

Guess what? It goes somewhere else entirely. And I mean into a realm that, for me, is not far from the one that Robert Bresson mined in the '50s and '60s and early '70s.

This isn't a "review" of Stone. The request was to hold off until it plays the Toronto Film Festival, but I called Overture publicity this morning and said "you have to relent a bit and let me say a little something." Stone is some kind of mind-blower, way better than expected. It really steps outside the box. It serves up moral/spiritual issues and past nightmares and demons and asks you, the viewer, to decide where the real morality and salvation lie.

Norton starts out as some kind of scurvy opportunistic convict with a corn-row haircut, but he gradually goes somewhere else. DeNiro's bureaucrat dullard seems compromised but half-sympathetic (or at least half-sympathetic, you're thinking, once you get to know him) but he, too, goes to an unexpected place. And Jovovich, whom Norton describes early on as an "alien," turns out to be less than that, but is definitely in her own realm.

And she's not the character who winds up leaving the planet, so to speak.

Norton playing a seemingly amoral convict playing all kinds of head games (or so it seems) suggests that Stone is going to be playing the old Primal Fear bait-and-switch. And it does, in fact, appear to be dealing from that deck of cards, but then the dealer gets up and leaves and another guy takes over.

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Stone is probably going to be misunderstood by most audiences (i.e., the ones who will expect to see exposure, revenge, moral ruin and chaos) but if I got it then others will and maybe we can all form a club. The more I think about Stone, the more astonished I am that such a film was even made in this age of the Eloi. The ending is pure arthouse, pure The Godfather, Part II. The younger brother of Joe Popcorn is going to throw his hands in the air and go "what the...?"

Norton is always gangbusters when he gets hold of a good part, but the arc of his role is so unusual and unexpected that I think I need to go back and watch Stone again to fully appreciate it. Stone also contains the bravest and most riveting performances De Niro has given in ages. The man finally has something to be proud of after walking in the desert for how many years? Jovovich has landed the finest and sexiest role of her career. She should have lucked into something like this years ago. It's the kind of role that, say, Uma Thurman might have played in the '90s, and she nails it. All the time you're thinking she's a conniver, but you start to realize she's mainly a little girl just looking for a daddy.

I was in and out with Curran's We Don't Live Here Anymore ('04) and didn't much care for The Painted Veil ('06 -- his first collaboration with Norton) but Stone is a revelation. The last big film by the screenwriter, Angus McLachlan, was Junebug ('05), which was primarily admired because of Amy Adams' breakout performance. There was some kind of weird spiritual current on inside Junebug and Painted Veil that didn't quite manifest (or at least not for me), but...well, enough specifics.

The cinemaphotography by Maryse Alberti (dp of Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler but mainly a documentary dp -- My Trip to Al-Qaeda, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector) is anything but rote. It's close and darting and always riveting. And the cutting by Alexandre de Franceschi blends in to create an atmospheric vibe that tells you right away, "The guys who made this film are anything but bums." Right away you know you're watching grade-A stuff.

Curran is a bold, bold director. Stone is a work of major distinction. It will probably quickly die but wow....what a movie. Excuse me, I mean "what a film."


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