By Saul Landau
“Stone” takes a hybrid Norman Rockwell-Grant Wood portrait of an aging mid western couple, adds two Quentin Tarantino characters who excel in manipulating and offers a disturbing cinematic slice of real America: repression, religion, lust, violence and escape into seedy mysticism.
Young Jack Mabry (Robert de Niro) watches golf on TV, ignoring his dissatisfied wife trying to get his attention. She tells him twice she plans to leave him. He jumps from his chair, races upstairs, grabs their sleeping child and threatens to throw her the window she leaves. She submits.
Cut. Grey-haired, wrinkled and smug Mabry, about to retire as prison parole officer, meets Stone (Edward Norton), an arsonist — his last case. Stone whines a self-righteous tale of having served his time, taken his punishment, and therefore “I deserve parole. I’ve been rehabilitated.” His corn-rowed hair, prison tattoos and con-like body posture negate his words. Mabry has spent years listening to criminals mouthing prison baloney to persuade him they merit parole. He doesn’t listen; he’s heard their lies before. Stone challenges him. What makes you better than me? “I don’t break the law.” Mabry self-righteously responds.
During his unpersuasive rap to get Mabry’s endorsement Stone adds shockingly intimate information. The shrewd convict notices Mabry’s discomfort as he rejoices in describing salacious details of his sex life with his wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich).
Having planted the seed of lust in the repressed Mabry, Stone convinces his wife, Lucetta, a distractingly attractive sex kitten, to contact the tight-assed Mabry. Lucetta’s childlike “openness” allows for an easy seduction of the sex-starved parole officer.
She displays convincing sincerity as she lusts with Mabry, as she does when supervising young children — her job. She relates to kids because she has not grown up – except in her body. The almost-retired parole officer does not suspect this innocence and concern for both him and her husband derive from a borderline personality that thrives on parental praise.
The affair, however, has unsettled the fragile façade built by the Mabrys. His wife, Madelyn (Frances Conroy), perceives something wrong with Mabry’s odd hours and increased remoteness. It unsettles her routine of booze, cigarettes and religious rituals that cover excruciating suffering nourished over decades of living with her inaccessible husband. In their isolated farmhouse without a farm, they sit on their porch or recite empty biblical passages before meals. Behind their façade of religious serenity lies scarcely controlled fury.
Stone’s scam to get Mabry to write a favorable parole report begins to work thanks to what Robin Williams might have said of Mabry: God gave man “a penis and a brain, but only enough blood to run one at a time.” As Mabry succumbs, Stone also changes. He inadvertently witnesses an act of prison violence. In the dead man’s eyes Stone seems to grasp the notion of compassion.
He realizes he cannot endure in the league of those who share the prison cells. He falls for “Zukangor,” a “spiritual” method of finding harmony, by turning sound into meditation and thus achieving soul purification — and reincarnation.
His epiphany, however, also changes his relationship with Lucetta, who adored Stone’s dominating, criminal personality – especially when he praised her. Indeed, she used sex to get Mabry’s favorable parole report, an activity she uses routinely to get men’s admiration.
Mabry begrudgingly submits his favorable report for Stone – against all his best judgment. But Lucetta does not receive Stone’s praise. Instead, thanks to his new religion, he has become distant towards her as he spouts spiritual babble. His once exciting vibrations have become boringly serene.
Mabry drives to and from work listening to religious radio. He releases energy by driving golf balls in an empty field. He and Mady attend Catholic Church regularly. Typical, well-adjusted, upright, law abiding and moral Americans. Not!
These characters, Republicans and Democrats, belong to “the great American public.” A criminal and parole officer, schoolteacher and housewife, have buried sick and evil acts that subconsciously drive their lives – a far cry from the American dream, unless you count nightmares. Mabry cannot free himself from the demons of needs he has repressed. His wife cannot drink away her anger. Stone, for all his wise-guy con-man attributes, begins to feel the need for some inner harmony in the prison atmosphere that offers harsh sound and ugly sights.
Lucetta’s apparent innocence, the delight in using her body, gives the appearance of having risen above the evil, egoistic motives and malice that grips the others. She stands as the apparent living and natural answer to the babbling radio preachers harping on sin and indeed to the basic values operating to curtail freedom in the land of the free. But her own chaos – a child in an adult’s body – belies this heroic stature. Like all the film’s characters, Lucetta strives for the unobtainable: security and freedom, stability and passion.
Director John Curran and screenwriter Angus MacLachlan weave the complicated characters into a searching collage of the modern American psyche. The surface composure of the Mabrys camouflages issues that confound millions – who die without resolving them. They all walk invisibly in the crowd.
Saul Landau, an Institute for Policy Studies fellow, makes films. (roundworldproductions.com)