On paper, Stone looks like a dream for fans of acting heavyweights facing off against each another. In one corner, there's Robert De Niro, playing Jack, a parole officer just a few weeks short of his retirement. In the other is Edward Norton, as a convicted arsonist going by the handle "Stone." (His real name, Gerald, doesn't exactly project the aura of toughness required in prison.) Between the two, something for the two men to wrestle over, is Stone's wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), who will do anything -- and I mean anything -- to convince Jack to give Stone the positive review necessary for his parole.
Director John Curran and screenwriter Angus MacLachlan set themselves lofty goals: They want to explore the motivations behind our worst life-altering decisions, along with the desperation and emptiness that they see as a key component in much religious faith. They try to tie it all together with a heavily symbolic thread, but none of it ever holds.
The promise of a great pair of dueling performances never materializes, either. We know that Jack is a bored, soul-deadened pencil pusher, but De Niro's bland performance never gives any indication of any complexity beneath that surface. As for Norton, the actor reportedly spent a great deal of time with an actual inmate, on whom his performance is modeled. But the urban accent Norton affects, and the soft, cracked timbre of his voice, seem more like an impersonation than anything that comes from inside the actor.
This is a film about people who are lost, and the filmmakers draw a direct line between their characters' existential wanderings and the religious obsessions they find for themselves. For Jack, it's the conservative Christian radio that soundtracks his commute to the prison; for his wife, Madylyn (Frances Conroy), it's a deep involvement in their church.
But more important to their ability to make it from one day to the next is a quiet, sad alcoholism. They spend each evening on their porch quietly getting drunk; together, but miles apart. This has been their existence for decades, avoiding any conflict that might lead to a repeat of the frightening event shown in the film's opening scene.
Stone grasps for spiritual answers, too: As his parole review progresses, he develops a sudden, all-consuming interest in a New Age-y faith called "Zukangor," which posits that one can hear God through sounds, like a hum, or the buzz of a bee. Lucetta, meanwhile, tends to find all the spiritual fulfillment she seems to need in the arms of other men. This includes Jack, whom she seduces in a meeting where she offers him a boiled egg that she's just finished lasciviously peeling. The original-sin implications are all too clear.
That tends to be the problem with all of the symbolic imagery: It's too eager to pull you out of the movie so you can think about what it's trying to get across. After a bizarre and ambiguous climax that sets Jack even further adrift, the film attempts to wrap all the subtext together with a buzzing bee that refers back to yet another meaning-laden insect in the movie's first scene, as well as to Stone's odd new buzz-based faith. It's just too much metaphor for those fragile, noisy wings to hold.