Wednesday, June 8, 2011


I knew a woman in Des Moines who was a social worker for the city. One of her "clients" - a drug-abusing ex-con - lived in my apartment building. Since he suffered from unpredictable crack-ups (drug-induced, I guessed), she gave me her number so she could get to him before the cops did.

She was trying to find a suitable job for him, and I asked her if his jail record made it impossible for him to really "return to society". She replied that it did not because, she believed, "we all break the law but only some of us get caught." I had no reason to doubt her, but such a view was prejudiced in the extreme against ordinary, law-abiding people - most of whom manage to avoid going to jail merely by being decent to one another.

But her view may have been slightly more advantageous in her profession than the one held by Jack Mabry in the extraordinary film Stone (2010). He is six months away from retirement as a parole officer in a prison outside Detroit, and has a few cases to finish, one of which involves a man named Gerald "Stone" Creeson, who took part in the murder of his grandparents (though his brother evidently carried out the killings), and the arson of their home.

In the course of the period covered by the film, both men undergo transformations - Stone discovers a modicum of peace within the chaos of prison and Jack finds that his life, his career and his marriage, have amounted to nothing. Involved in these transformations is Stone's pretty wife Lucetta, who is apparently a hooker, and who seduces Jack to win favor for Stone.

There is a fine irony in an evidently religious man who listens to "inspirational" radio and talks to his minister not believing in another man's spiritual awakening. And Lucetta's sexual favors nearly ruin Stone's efforts to convince Jack that he's serious and that he's changed.

By the time of his parole hearing, Stone's "epiphany" (his word) has made him almost indifferent to the outcome. Jack is so disturbed by his awakening to a pointless life that he grows resentful of Lucetta and of Stone and believes he's been "conned" by them.

"I am who I am," Stone tells Jack. "And that's ok." Jack asks Lucetta, "Do you go to church?" "No," she answers bluntly. "There's no such thing as God." And Jack's alcoholic wife asks him "You have something to say to me?" All Jack can say is "I can't even think of what I've been wanting to say."

What struck me most about the climax of the film was the, to me, surprising restraint of the filmmakers. A film with such a powerhouse cast would usually have gone on an unnecessary detour into violence. That it managed to avoid the unfortunate tendency of American film to lapse into melodrama made Stone all the more remarkable for it. (Notice how the film avoids using any music on the soundtrack.)

As Jack, Robert de Niro is intensely and beautifully believable, a man who has the power to release men behind bars but who can't find his own way out. His authenticity is the anchor of the film. I loved that last moment when he's sitting alone in his office with the contents of his desk assembled in boxes. His last gesture is to look up.

As Stone, Ed Norton has never been better. Even his spiritual epiphany convinces because of his earnestness with the fumbling words he uses to express what's happened inside him. He proves to us how much better a man he is than Jack, and how much fitter he is to live in society.

Then there's Milla Jovovich. She has struggled for years with her extraordinary looks to gain respect as an actress. She can relax now. As Lucetta, whom Stone himself admits is an "alien", she gives us a complete, if deeply flawed, human being. The worried look on her face when she confronts Stone in civilian clothes as they are about to walk out of the prison together is astonishing.

Stone arrived here in the Sticks completely unannounced to once again challenge my conviction that the American film hasn't come of age.

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