A bizarre, messy tale of religious philosophy and guilt, John Curran's "Stone" has several unique parts that never entirely fit together. Robert De Niro stars as Michigan-based parole officer Jack Mabrey, an unnervingly cold man with inner demons to spare. His latest subject is Stone (Edward Norton), a convicted arsonist up for parole. Mabrey finds himself drawn into a dangerous liaison with the prisoner's troublemaking wife (Milla Jovovich), willfully subjecting himself to a destructive situation. His motives continually unclear, Jack provides the movie with enough of a tantalizing enigma to make for an engaging viewing experience in individual moments -- but the bigger themes never come together.
Curran ("The Painted Veil") apparently puts all his efforts into the haunting first act, which establishes a marvelous sense of mystery embedded in the movie's design. A fleeting prologue finds early versions of Jack and his wife (later played by Frances Conroy) embroiled in a marital dispute that leads Jack to threaten the life of their own child. As the soundtrack grows overwhelmed by hissing insects and a whispering breeze, Curran creates a palpable sense of discomfort that carries through the story even as it staggers about in search of a purpose. Flashing forward to the brink of Jack's retirement, Curran closes in on the professional burnout visible in Jack's eyes. Having spent his days controlling the fate of broken men and women -- both the prisoners and his spouse -- he appears to struggle with finding a means of personal satisfaction. The church, a major presence in his private life, apparently doesn't do the trick.
Curran artfully establishes the figure of a broken man in ambitious cinematic terms. But once the story (written by Angus MacLachlan, initially as a play) pits De Niro against Norton, "Stone" turns into a confusing morality tale. Sitting in Jack's office over the course of several meetings, the men face off in tight exchanges that form the narrative backbone of the movie. Norton's character, a seemingly malicious schemer intent on ensuring his release, unleashes rapid-fire dialogue about atonement for his past sins. Speaking in a harsh Southern accent, Norton's trashy persona is almost too nutty for his own good, and takes some time to credibly settle into the role. Still, it's a focused, calculated performance -- although it's never quite apparent what he's focused on.
At a certain point, "Stone" takes a sharp turn into film noir territory with the threat of blackmail. The criminal sends his lovesick wife to seduce Jack, a feat she accomplishes with remarkable ease. Jack's unconvincingly fast susceptibility to Jovovich's sultry femme fatale takes the movie a few more steps beyond reality and into the realm of a psychological nightmare (not to mention a monumentally awkward sex scene between Jovovich and De Niro).
Despite the odd tone, the heart of "Stone" is an obvious set-up with no place to go. The dialogue suggests all sinners are created equally -- "How long do you have to keep judging someone for one bad thing they've done?" asks Stone -- but since Curran makes it clear from the beginning that Jack himself is no angel, his extramarital affair never feels like it complicates the issues at hand. It's a dark, murky picture from the first frame to the last.
As a thriller, "Stone" has loads of potential and not enough momentum to pull it off. It does, however, maintain a consistent redeeming factor: De Niro, putting on a legitimately unsettling performance, delivers his best work in years as a man growing increasingly exasperated by an inability to express his fears. Even so, he can't salvage the movie from its muddled depictions of justice and spirituality. Curran obviously has a lot of ideas, but fails to stick with one that works.