"Stone" wants to tackle deep and heavy themes, like morality, spirituality, crime, and punishment, but aside from making some broad allusions and belabored metaphors, really doesn't get around to business. In the opening scene, we watch a young wife summon up the courage to leave an unhappy marriage, only to be brutally coerced into staying, when her husband dangles their sleeping daughter out of the second-story bedroom window and threatens to let her fall. After the wife capitulates and the husband relents, the wife hurries to close the window, inadvertently killing a bee. This is easily the most interesting and effective part of the entire film, and it features none of the principle actors and is only briefly alluded to later in the story.
Several decades later, the couple is now played by Robert DeNiro and Frances Conroy, and are identified as Jack and Madylyn Mabry. Jack is a correctional officer near retirement, who interviews potential parolees to determine if they are no longer a danger to society. One of his final cases is Gerald "Stone" Creeson (Edward Norton), an arsonist who wants very badly to make parole, though he still refuses to admit to his crime and shows no remorse. Stone has a wife waiting for him, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), who loves him so much that she would do anything to help him get out of prison. This includes seducing Jack and leading him astray, with predictably dire consequences.
"Stone" is primarily a character study of Jack Mabry, who is a stickler for the rules and procedure, faithfully goes to church with his wife every Sunday, and seems perfectly content. The intrusion of Stone and Lucetta into his life challenges his worldview. Jack's dark side emerges, first tentatively as he begins to question his faith, and then in more obvious and destructive ways. The breakdown of these moral boundaries and Jack being forced to confront his own hypocrisy should be plenty of material for "Stone" to chew on, but the film gets ambitious and tries to tie this to a deeper crisis of faith. And this is where it falters.
Most of spiritual elements in the film call attention to themselves but are never explored in any meaningful way. Rather, they tend to distract from the rest of the film. Religious radio programs and readings of passages from the Bible provide a lot of portentous background noise. At one point Stone has an epiphany and converts to a half-baked religion called Zukandor, which allows him to prattle on about alternate systems of spirituality and set up one of the primary metaphors in the film - that the coming of spiritual enlightenment is first signaled through sound. Hence the bee in the first scene and recurring buzzing noises on the soundtrack throughout.
The concepts found in "Stone" are engaging, and the actors are all talented and capable, but the execution is severely lacking. Too much time is wasted on establishing the mood and tone instead of tending to the development of the cold, difficult characters and predictable plot. It is not easy to empathize with any of the leads. Robert DeNiro adds what texture he can to Jack Mabry, but there's not enough there to make us care about his disintegrating marriage and existential turmoil. Edward Norton's Stone is a collection of odd characteristics that don't seem to fit together, not the least of which are ridiculous-looking cornrows and a thick, indeterminate accent that doesn't match his lovely wife's.
That brings us to Milla Jovovich, who gives the best performance out of the entire cast. Lucetta has some some interesting dimensions that Jovovich brings out perfectly, going beyond simply supplying a sexual presence and some passive-aggressive seduction tactics. It's clear that underneath the baby-talk and the innocent looks, someone far warier lies in wait. Having seen Jovovich stuck in wide-eyed ingenue and woman-child roles far too often, it was nice to see her expand on her usual screen persona. I wish she'd been given more to do here. Frances Conroy as the long-suffering Madylyn Mabry also makes the most of her few limited, but vital scenes.
I may fault "Stone" for being too ambitious, but at least its ambitions are honest. John Curran is a fine director, who was also responsible for the wonderful, underseen "Painted Veil." Writer Angus MacLachlan gave us "Junebug." Even if they were ultimately unsuccessful, they deserve due credit for trying to do something different and original with "Stone," which is more than I can say for a lot filmmakers currently churning out cookie-cutter crime dramas. "Stone" is a muddled mess, but I get the feeling it was on the right track to something better.