John Curran's Stone may be the season's gutsiest drama: a serious story about redemption and moral compromise in which no one comes out the way they expect to -- including the audience.
While most movies telegraph where they'll end up in the first 15 minutes, Stone keeps taking turns into uncharted territory. Even when something looks familiar, chances are it will take you in a direction you don't expect.
Certainly the set-up feels as though you've seen it before. Robert De Niro plays Jack Mabry, a parole official at a state penitentiary, trapped in a loveless marriage to his wife of decades (Frances Conroy). He goes to work, he comes home and sits silently, drinking or watching TV. He goes to church every Sunday -- but you get no sense that he's doing anything but devoutly going through the motions.
He's close to retirement, counting the days to ... what? His life away from work seems even deadlier than working inside a prison. And that job is draining, a constant struggle to retain empathy while staying on his guard.
That's never more true than when he meets one of his final parole candidates: Gerald "Stone" Creeson (Edward Norton), a slippery corn-rowed type who seems to be jiving right from the start. He doesn't believe that Jack has anything to offer him or that Jack is really interested in helping achieve early parole. An arsonist whose fire killed a couple of people (to destroy evidence from a robbery), Stone mostly seems to be trying to get over on Jack.
Yet Stone is convinced that he can change Jack's mind, if he can just get Jack to talk to Stone's wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich). But neither of the men are ready for just what Lucetta is able to do.
Yes, this is a story of lust and passion, but neither come quite where you expect them to. It's also a story of redemption and a fall from grace. But again, Angus MacLachlan's script takes chances and leaps that come out of nowhere and lead you places you don't anticipate.
Ultimately, this is a story about making peace - with one's past and one's future. Both Jack and Stone have dark deeds in their history. The question of forgiveness -- from others, from themselves -- is an open one. So is the notion of who, exactly, is taking advantage of whom. Whose eyes will open to themselves? Who will be deceived?
De Niro gives a movingly interior performance as a man who bubbles with an anger that surprises even him. He plays Jack as someone who has denied his own essential nature for his entire life -- and who can't decide who to be once he figures out that essential conundrum. It's a subtle, crushing performance, one told mostly by the eyes, on a level with the underrated work De Niro did in the unjustly ignored Everybody's Fine.
By contrast, Norton is all about misdirection, playing a con who may, in fact, be telling the truth -- or just realizing what the truth is. And Jovovich, as his sexy, serpentine wife, is both sultry and upfront about who she is -- a woman who may or may not be harboring an ulterior motive.
Stone is a stunner -- a film that seems to be one thing but turns out to be quite another. It challenges your assumptions at every turn -- and leaves you wrung out at the end.
Follow Marshall Fine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hollywoodnfine