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Stone Stumbles in Balancing Moral Questions

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • Updated Apr 30, 2013
<i>Stone</i> Stumbles in Balancing Moral Questions

DVD Release Date: January 18, 2011
Theatrical Release Date: October 8, 2010 (limited)
Rating: R (for strong sexuality and violence, and pervasive language)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 105 min.
Director: John Curran
Actors: Edward Norton, Robert De Niro, Milla Jovovich, Frances Conroy, Peter Lewis

Before you dive into this review of Stone, the new film from director John Curran (The Painted Veil), check the rating description above. The film earns its R rating for "strong sexuality and violence, and pervasive language."

So it may come as a surprise to learn that Stone is one of the year's more interesting, if not particularly successful, religious films. Stone is about religion and Christianity on one level, but it's not entirely satisfying on those subjects, nor is it particularly revelatory. The best that can be said for Stone is that it raises some intriguing ideas about the nature of faith and our ability (or lack thereof) to do good in the world. Beyond that, it tells a story of moral corruption that feels too familiar and too obvious—the kind of thing that might please those who see religion as a form of hypocrisy. What the film doesn't offer, at least not convincingly, is a depiction of faith that matches its exploration of temptation and weakness.

Jack Mabry (Robert De Niro) is a longtime corrections officer on the verge of retirement when he meets Gerald Creeson (Edward Norton), a corn-rowed felon who goes by the nickname Stone. He tells Jack he's done enough time for an earlier crime and is now reformed, ready for the outside world.

When Jack, who's heard similar stories from numerous inmates over the years, reacts coolly to Stone's plea, the inmate enlists his wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), to do anything she has to do to meet Jack on the outside and convince him to release Stone. She works her way into Jack's life, seduces him and wins Stone's freedom.

There's not much more to the plot of Stone, which is written by Angus MacLachlan (Junebug). What makes the film more interesting than the typical psychological cat-and-mouse game is the primacy of religious questions the film raises. Jack is a longtime Catholic, married for many years to Madylyn (Frances Conroy). Jack goes to church and seems comfortable with outward forms of the institution, but he still struggles with the basics of his faith.

We know from the film's opening scenes that Jack has a volatile temper and has threatened his wife and daughter in the past. Although he appears to have grown wiser with age, the cracks in his moral foundation are starting to widen into chasms. He confesses to a priest that he has doubts about the tenets of Christianity. His taste for alcohol may be growing, and, when faced with Lucetta's come-ons, he's all too willing to be led astray. His timid wife suspects something's up, but she seems worn down by Jack's behavior.

Stone, meanwhile, embraces his own form of religion behind bars. Increasingly desperate and fearing he won't survive the remainder of his time in prison, the foul-mouthed inmate latches on to an obscure religious book and its teaching that we can all become "God's tuning forks" if we only listen carefully to ambient sounds.

Is Stone a true believer in this newfound faith, or is he seeking an easy way to connect with Jack, whom he knows to be outwardly devout? Stone is murky on this question, preferring to show the differing trajectories of its two principal characters—one toward decay, debauchery and spiritual imprisonment, the other toward inner harmony and outward freedom.

Jack is used to controlling others, not being controlled, and he knows that Stone, like other inmates looking for early release, wants to gain control of Jack's emotions in selling his story of remorse and repentance. However, Jack knows that he controls their destinies, and the film shows how he's come to view himself as the judge of others. Throughout the film, we hear snippets from the steady diet of talk radio Jack favors during his commute. Prognosticators offer doom-and-gloom assessments of the moral and financial health of the United States. A preacher speaks about man's inability to save himself, quoting Romans and Revelation. What Jack's listening to is going to his head.

Early in the film, he tells Stone that if he wants to be released, he needs to go through Jack. Pointing to the world beyond the prison, Jack shouts that he's the door to the outside: "I'm that door! You will go through me!" Late in the film, the radio preacher quotes Revelation 3:20, in which Jesus says, "I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in." When Stone challenges Jack to stop judging him, Jack brushes it aside.

There will be justice for Jack, but watching his life crumble provides no comfort or message of hope. In the end, Stone comes across as deeply cynical about religious faith. It's true that, as the radio preacher says at one point, none of us can choose to be born again, but watching a man's life slowly unravel because of his lack of true faith doesn't offer many moral lessons. True believers succumb to temptation all the time, but they know the answer is to repent and renew their commitment to their Creator. Watching a man who doesn't understand this spiral out of control may be one way of displaying the gravity of sin's consequences, but it's only one side of the coin. As it is, Stone feels like a half-truth, and that's not good enough.

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  • Language/Profanity:  Steady profanity and foul language; Lord's name taken in vain numerous times; more than 20 uses of the "f" word; Stone tells Jack vivid descriptions of his sex life with Lucetta and asks Jack about his sex life as a longtime married man.
  • Smoking/Drinking/Drugs:  Jack drinks several times during the film, as does his wife; he buys liquor at a local store; multiple scenes of smoking and drinking by other characters.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Kissing; during a prison visit, Lucetta tells Stone she's not wearing underwear, and he puts his hand between her legs; a topless woman; a vigorous sex scene shown from above, including a man's bare backside; Lucetta seduces Jack and has sex, although only a bare back is seen.
  • Violence/Crime:  A father threatens to throw his sleeping daughter out of her bedroom window; a prison stabbing.
  • Religion/Morals:  Jack is a longtime Catholic but he struggles to believe that his faith is real; a church service includes singing of "All Things Bright and Beautiful"; a church funeral includes a eulogy; several sound bites from a radio preacher discussing free will, and our inability to be born again of our own initiative; he quotes several New Testament passages; Stone tells Lucetta he's suicidal; Stone reads a religious book titled The Power of Zukanga and embraces its teaching that we can be become "tuning forks of God"; a communion scene; a priest quotes to Jack the verse "be still and know that I am God," explaining that it means "God sometimes speaks to us in mysterious ways"; grace said before a meal.