Robert De Niro vs. Edward Norton should have been a thrilling clash of the titans: two actors who are famous for their transformational methods, intense performances and decades of challenging roles.
Turns out their showdowns are just about the only moments worth watching in "Stone." The rest is implausible melodrama.
The prison tale from director John Curran ("The Painted Veil," also starring Norton) and writer Angus MacLachlan ("Junebug") is heavy on stereotypes, cliches and repetitive religious symbolism. But when the two stars square off in long scenes that make you feel as if you're watching a play on film, it can be riveting.
Norton stars as Gerald Creeson, a Michigan prisoner nicknamed "Stone" who has served eight years for covering up his grandparents' murders with a fire. De Niro plays Jack Mabry, the parole officer tasked with deciding whether Creeson is ready to return to the outside world. He is stoic in his demeanor both at work and home, where his long-suffering wife (Frances Conroy) spends her days drinking, chain-smoking and feeding her emotional needs with biblical passages.
Get it? These guys are both made of STONE. Hence the title. Very tricky.
The two sit down in Jack's office for a series of interviews. Stone is initially defiant and evasive but eventually becomes more forthcoming about the details of his crime.
With his cornrows, squirrelly demeanor and a raspy, high-pitched delivery that sounds like he's doing a Casey Affleck impression, Norton is all sorts of mannered in his performance, but it's still kind of a hoot to watch.
Jack, meanwhile, steadily questions him and reveals nothing when Stone tries to get under his skin with questions of his own -- but when he eventually snaps, it's vintage, volatile De Niro. Having made mostly comedies over the past decade or so, it's good to see De Niro back in a meatier dramatic role.
If it had just been about these two guys breaking each other down in this unforgiving setting, "Stone" would have been fine. Instead, it becomes a totally ridiculous love triangle, with Stone's wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), seducing Jack to ensure that he writes a positive report resulting in Stone's release.
Sure, she's beautiful and alluring -- and clearly up for anything, since she visits Stone in prison sans panties. We also know Jack is capable of darkness, based on the film's startling opening flashback sequence. But the idea that he'd be foolish enough to let them manipulate him -- and then keep going back for more -- is ludicrous.
The suggestion that Stone and Jack aren't so different from each other, even though one is a convicted prisoner and the other is passing judgment, is pretty obvious. Jack also happens to be just a few weeks away from retirement, which means -- you guessed it -- this is the tried-and-true, one-last-job premise. (De Niro and Norton previously co-starred in the one-last-heist thriller "The Score," from 2001.)
Curran tries to amp up the sense of dread with frequent doses of Christian AM talk radio, which serves as a sort of facile Greek chorus commenting on the characters' actions. He adds a buzzing din that's intended to suggest tension but is really just annoying.
Maybe that's appropriate, though. In the end, the whole film feels like sound and fury, signifying nothing.
"Stone," an Overture Films release, is rated R for strong sexuality and violence, and pervasive language. Running time: 101 minutes. Two stars out of four.