Stone (Overture Films, R)

Without the big names in the cast, no one would give this film a second look; with them it still frequently tries your patience with thoughts of what might have been.

 

 
 
With Stone, screenwriter Angus MacLachlan seems to be trying to rewrite Equus without realizing that: 1) what works on stage does not necessarily work on screen, and 2) it’s not the ‘70s anymore. Peter Schaffer’s play, a huge hit in 1973, plugged into the preoccupations of the time with its focus on the evils of repression and the envy of a conventional older man for the unruly passions of a younger one. The play was also notable for its flights of poetic language (which, in truth, haven’t worn all that well today) and brilliant staging in which actors portrayed horses by wearing stylized wire mesh heads over track suits.
Sad to say, for all the best efforts of a fine crew of actors, Stone disappoints on practically every score. More than anything, it feels like a stage play opened up insufficiently for the screen with movie techniques such as disorienting cuts between circling cameras, extreme close-ups and sustained bass notes to signal transformations. It also attempts to use clumsily obvious symbolism to play a role similar to that of Schaffer’s deliberately theatrical language. The restriction of the significant action to four characters feels entirely artificial (whereas such small casts work perfectly well on stage), there’s nothing original or groundbreaking about the ideas in which Stone traffics and the story itself mostly fails to convince. Without the big names in the cast, no one would give this film a second look; with them it still frequently tries your patience with thoughts of what might have been.
The older man in the film’s main relationship is Jack (Robert De Niro), a parole officer a few weeks from retirement. His life seems to be held together by religion, booze and the rituals of a conventional domestic life. The younger man is Stone (Edward Norton), a convict up for parole and one of Jack’s last remaining cases. Stone’s wife Lucetta (Milla Jovovich) plays a key role in the story, while Jack’s wife Madylyn (Frances Conroy) has very little to do until very nearly the end of the film. Her moment is worth waiting for but makes you wish MacLachlan had written a meatier role so Conroy’s talents could have been put to real use.
Director John Curran frequently requires the audience to suspend disbelief beyond the breaking point, beginning with the film’s position that, between them, a career parole officer and a convict having served eight years have no idea how the system works or the roles they play in it. You are required to accept at face value most of the major points of the film—Stone is desperate to get out of prison, Lucetta loves him madly, Jack is suffering a crisis of conscience—instead of having them convincingly established by either the actors or the script. Even small points like the amount of intimate contact allowed between prisoners and visitors (Stone is in for setting a fire to cover up the murder of his grandparents, so he’s not exactly in a country club prison) make the film seem less than plausible.
However, if you’re willing to buy all that you can enjoy some fine moments of acting, particularly from Jovovich. She can switch from full-on temptress to little-girl innocence (the latter eerily reminiscent of Sally Hawkins’ character in Happy-Go-Lucky) while remaining in total control of her performance and letting you know at the same time that it’s all a con. De Niro is excellent within the confines of an unbelievable script, although the director’s penchant for atomizing performances gives him little chance to really show what he can do. I’m less impressed with Norton’s performance, which seems more like he is assuming a series of attitudes than a making a real attempt to create a convincing character. Everyone involved has done better work elsewhere, so I’m willing to just call this one a dud and move on. | Sarah Boslaugh

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