Some movies build suspense by giving the audience more information than the film’s characters have. As in, “She shouldn’t go up into the attic with him! He’s the killer!”
Other movies generate suspense by withholding information, making us puzzle over what’s going on. “Gee, why is he so insistent about taking her up to that attic, anyway?”
“Stone” is the latter kind of movie. Set up as a familiar noir plot, the film veers off into unexpected places, keeping the audience guessing as to the main characters’ motivations well after the credits roll. I found that more fascinating than frustrating.
Robert DeNiro should be the good guy in the movie, a prison psychiatrist named Jack Mabry who is a few weeks from retirement. And Edward Norton should be the bad guy, a serial arsonist named Gerald “Stone” Creason who served over a decade in prison for the murder of his grandparents.
Stone is desperate to convince Jack to file a good report on him to the parole board, so to that end he asks his wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), to cozy up to him. The upstanding Jack initially resists Lucetta’s advances, which are come-ons disguised as down-home neighborliness, but eventually he succumbs.
At this point, we think we see the nature of the game. Jack is a good man who has given in to temptation, and now is at the mercy of a hardened criminal and his mercenary wife. At least, that’s the plot the trailer sells us.
But writer Angus MacLachlan and director John Curran (“The Killer Inside Me”) aren’t interested in fulfilling expectations. For one thing, once Stone has the upper hand over Jack, he doesn’t seem particularly interested in using it. He goes through a very strange religious epiphany in prison, which changes his perspective. He almost seems content to stay behind bars, although Norton plays him with such wily charm that we’re never sure if his conversion is genuine.
And as for Jack, we soon see there’s a lot of deep-seated anger bubbling beneath that weary bureaucratic exterior. His rage has been held in check by his faith (embodied by his pious wife, played beautifully by Frances Conroy), but the cracks in the façade are starting to show.
Ultimately, what connects both Stone and Jack is a growing acceptance of their true natures, no matter how self-destructive those natures might be. “Stone” is a surprisingly internal film — at key moments, Curran includes montages of the four main characters silently wrestling with their thoughts.
Eventually, the movie builds toward the confrontation between Stone and Jack that we know is coming. But by the time it happens, both men are in different places than when the film started, and the outcome is far different.
Norton is his usual canny self (not far removed from his last collaboration with DeNiro, the 2001 heist film “The Score”), and Jovovich is unexpectedly strong.
But it’s really DeNiro, who has been slumming it in the last few years in humdrum action pics like “Righteous Kill” and comedies like “Meet the Fockers,” who scores with a ferocious and complex performance that hints at his earlier glories.