By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
If only one character in Stone reacted as someone in his position would to the preposterous situation at hand, the movie would be 15 minutes long.
That would be Jack Mabry, listlessly played by Robert De Niro like an actor needing to make a mortgage payment. Jack is a parole officer whose job is to evaluate eligible prisoners, and apparently has been good at it for decades. He is weeks away from retirement, but that hasn't dulled his devotion to work; rather than coasting to the finish line, he insists on clearing out his pending cases.
Jack should be savvy enough to see right through one of those potential parolees, a fast-talking roughneck named Gerald "Stone" Creeson (Edward Norton), jailed for arson and helping to kill his grandparents. Obviously this is not someone to be trusted.
Stone blows into Jack's office demanding to be released and constantly interrupting the interview with graphic descriptions of what he misses about his girlfriend and hollow declarations of being rehabilitated. The instincts that Jack must have developed after years in this job immediately desert him. Rather than kicking Stone back to his cell for someone else to handle in a few years — logically ending the movie — Jack gets passively sucked into a deepening pile of bull hockey.
This never makes sense, after an earlier flashback showing Jack (De Niro look-alike Enver Gjokaj) as someone capable of throwing his baby daughter from a second-story window to get what he wants. Years later, Jack's weary wife, Madylyn (Frances Conroy), still cringes when he raises his voice. Jack should be able to crush Stone into pebbles.
Why the shift in personality? Screenwriter Angus MacLachlan clumsily attributes it to Jack and Madylyn finding religion, although they don't fully practice what is preached. Christian radio shows are a constant on the sound track (handily commenting on whatever happens), yet alcohol, tobacco and gambling are fixtures in the Mabry home. But, oh, the repression has taken its toll.
All of which leads to the most ridiculous turn in MacLachlan's script, when Stone's girlfriend, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich, suitably slutty), seduces Jack to facilitate her man's release. Meanwhile, the religion angle is countered by Stone embracing an obscure Far Eastern faith, although we've seen enough of him to wonder if it's just part of the plan.
Either way, watching Jack getting grinded by one schemer and worn down by the other is absurd.
De Niro looks pained to be here, and Norton performed this jittery liar routine so indelibly in Primal Fear that nothing his character does is surprising.
Neither actor will include clips from Stone in his career achievement tributes.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or ((727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.