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MARKING TIME: Robert De Niro is a parole officer with one last hurdle before retirement in 'Stone.'

The Wall

De Niro and Norton go mano a mano in hard-to-swallow drama 'Stone'

By Richard von Busack

THE GREAT actor duels, the kind of failures that make you say, "The acting was really good," which in turn are related to the kind of failures that make you say, "The photography was really good"—such movies almost have to be bereft of common sense to work. Stone has that lack of common sense, but it also doesn't really work. In this Michigan-based drama, a troika of heavy-acting steeds pull in all three directions. Fourth-billed Frances Conroy takes the dummied-up approach essentially out of self-defense. Director John Curran (We Don't Live Here Anymore, The Painted Veil) watches in wonder as the leads act up a Category 5 storm. Edward Norton is bug-eyed, corn-rowed, drawling; it's a performance that salutes the profane charisma of Charles Manson. He plays "Stone," a convict doing time on a particularly heinous accessory to murder charge. He's up for parole once again, as he has been over the years. Swathed completely in polyester and crumbling like a damp wall is Stone's parole officer Jack Mabry (Robert De Niro). Mabry sees no reason to let this particular son of Satan out on the streets again.

The con is getting desperate, though, and he has a new strategy to get himself released: an elementary honey trap, baited by his red-hot wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich, very improved if clearly Oscar-stalking). Lucetta, a long-legged devil girl who teaches school, ought to be able to get around Mabry, who is this close to retiring from his job.

Considering the different fates these two men have in front of them, there's not much hope for either. Friendly as he is, Stone acts like such a snake you wouldn't trust him out of the box for a second. Mabry has a numbed-out relationship with his own aging wife, Madylyn (Conroy), who is near-comatose from booze, Jesus and old but justified resentments. As we see in the film's first episode, once upon a time Jack did something almost unforgivable, and Madylyn has never let it go. Mabry drinks a bit himself. Just as we can always tell that a character coughing in a movie equals imminent death of cancer, a character making a stop at the liquor store means he's three quarters of the way to alcoholism.

Surprisingly, it's actually Stone the con who is seduced first. He hunts for a religion that'll make him look parolable. Teetering on the edge from stir-craziness, he discovers "Zukangor," some sort of mail-order creed that makes him insanely passive. This, and witnessing the death of a prisoner at close range, hits home, but in a way that's hard to parse: does he get off watching the blood, or is he overcome with horror? Your guess is as good as mine.

The locations, including the exteriors of Michigan's infamous Jacktown prison, give the film some visual believability to make up for the ending. It's a character study that repeats the points it makes about the sinful soul of man, instead of coming to some conclusion. Stone is auto-intoxicated with the bad kind of moral relativism: it's another example of adultery being considered as bad as murder. So the lust in Mabry's heart is as much of a sin as Stone's crime? Mabry's own impulse to take Lucetta up on what she offers (whiskey makes it easier) is a betrayal of his code and his wife. But the movie overdetermines its good and evil games. The nonstop prayer services on the AM radio broadcasts, as Mabry makes his numb drives to work, seem to be addressed to the sinners in the audience.

Then comes a chain of irresolute endings set to an electronic soundtrack that sounds like a dripping faucet. Director Curran's artsy take on this moth-and-candle game is scripted by Angus (Junebug) Maclachlan: "Previously, he was best known as a playwright," says the presskit. Let's not change his status on the grounds of a movie that certainly thinks it's a play.


(R; 105 min.), directed by John Curran and starring Robert De Niro, Milla Jovovich and Edward Norton, opens Friday.

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