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Stone, meanwhile, sinks like one. That’s not to say it’s poorly done. You’ll admire the performances of Edward Norton, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, and Milla Jovovich as their characters slither around ideas about God, judgment, revenge, and the consequences of one’s actions. But the ugly undercurrent in Angus MacLachlan’s script will leave you feeling queasy.
The catalyst, admittedly, is a hoary cliche. De Niro plays Jack, a parole officer who’s—yes—close to retirement when he meets Stone (Norton), a difficult, cornrowed inmate. Stone curses in his interview, talks explicitly about his wife, Lucetta (Jovovich)—he also believes she’s an alien—and gets angry when Jack asks questions. Irrationally trying to provoke the man who can help him, Stone asks Jack intimate queries in return and repeatedly threatens to walk out. (“I ain’t got time for this!” Uh, you don’t?) The two do not get off to a great start.
Stone eventually cools down enough not to get prickly every time Jack tries to suss out whether he’s worthy of parole. In the meantime, the convict sets Lucetta on the case. Day to Stone’s night, Lucetta is first shown in a classroom, smiling brightly as she encourages her students to do one nice thing that day but not tell anyone about it. And she calls Jack’s house, polite if relentless, trying to plead her husband’s case. When Jack’s wife, Madylyn (Conroy), finally lets Lucetta talk to him, though, the coos of a nice girl turn to those of a sexy one as her strategy goes from begging to seducing Jack.
The tangle that follows is heavy on religion (Stone finds comfort in an obscure one; Madylyn’s a Bible-reading Fundamentalist type) as well as two crucial questions Stone asks Jack: “How long you keep judging a person for one bad thing they done?” and “Why are you fit to walk around free and I don’t?” Thought-provoking queries, especially the latter, considering we see both in flashbacks and in his current temptations that Jack is no angel. He even confesses to his priest that, for his thoughts, “Someone should just shoot me.”
Director John Curran is used to dealing with unpleasantness, having helmed 2004’s crumbling-marriage drama We Don’t Live Here Anymore. And he gets terrific efforts from his cast, particularly Jovovich—witness Lucetta’s childlike friendliness (she’s fond of the word “silly” and pouting when she’s unhappy) take a creepy turn as she half-whispers, half-moans what she loves about Stone and what she could love about Jack.
Norton, too, is as frightening and impenetrable as ever, his Stone a tightly wound ball of fury who still finds his intellectual and spiritual curiosity piqued at the possibility of a greater power. He gets increasingly frustrated with Lucetta’s apparent simple-mindedness—or are both of them staging a ruse, with the goal of destroying Jack’s career and marriage?
All issues with the film lie with the script. Jack’s actions, despite his not-pristine past, aren’t entirely believable, and the emphasis on God and faith gives Stone a fire-and-brimstone feel that’s nerve-wracking (a radio with a conservative blowhard often plays in the background) but ultimately pointless. Near the end, a character asks, “You ruined my life. Why?” The subtext that this person’s actions are actually what ruined his life is an interesting one, but not enough for Stone to leap from admirable to likable.