There is a tragic irony in STONE. Specifically, that Jack Mabry (Robert de Niro) has spent his professional life listening to convicts as they make their case for parole, and yet, he has never really heard any of them. He thinks hes wise to the lies they tell in order to be free once again. Freedom, though, as a concept is at the heart of some very sophisticated theology that makes up this literate drama. And, as in all philosophical, as well as theological and poetic constructs, prison bars do not a prison make.
Jack is set to retire, but rather than coasting through his last month, he continues his usual workload, and with it comes the arsonist, Stone (Edward Norton). While Stone gives most of the right answers to Jacks questions about why he thinks hes rehabilitated enough to be released, he also volunteers too much information about his wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich). Carnal information about their sex life that Jack puts a stop to almost immediately. Almost. For once, hes hearing. And it plants exactly the seed in his mind that Stone intended, the which he follows up by having Lucetta contact Jack and propose a meeting outside the confines of Jacks office to discuss Stones future. Jack resists at first, but Lucetta perseveres with an infectious good nature rather than the overt seduction of a scheming femme fatale. She has no competition from Jacks wife, Madylyn (Frances Conroy), a ghost of a woman getting through her day with poker, cigarettes, liquor and religion. Years before Jack killed her soul, or, as she summed it up, put it in a dungeon. A remark that Jack actually heard and that drove him to such violence that Madylyn never brought it up again.
The plan works perfectly, even after Stone experiences an unexpected turn of events. While browsing the prison librarys books on religion for reasons that probably have nothing to do with turning towards the spiritual, he peruses the Bible, the Koran, as well as Hindu texts. Its not until he comes across a religion that is a mixture of all the others, but is like none of them, that something clicks. Zukangor, invented by the films writer, Angus MacLachlan, uses a mantra and meditation to achieve harmony with the universe, and teaches reincarnation as the way of purifying the soul. Responsibility is worked out through one or many lifetimes, and the only way to true happiness comes in finding that harmony with the universe. It starts with listening, really listening, and the sound might be a small as the buzz of a bee.
The dynamics of these four people are the compelling backbone of the story. MacLachlan revels in the complexity of these four all moving forward, but not all making progress. He along with director John Curran and Norton conspire magnificently to make Stone both a conniver and a convert, on the road to enlightenment, but not there yet. It makes every move he makes subject to a wealth of questions with no easy answers. Nortons performance is subtle and intense. The savvy nature of Stones instinctive intelligence and his understanding of human nature that gives him almost supernatural powers of manipulating those around him is a hard glint in Nortons eyes. The eyes give away the exact moment of Stones epiphany, watching another inmate being murdered, there is the visible shock of sudden understanding and the pain of compassion for the dying man rolled into one life-defining moment. De Niro, with the less showy role, is nonetheless an equally disconcerting blend of right and wrong with only luck to have kept his character on the right side of the law passing judgment on others.
The script is full of signs and wonders, as a consideration of this type should be. A radio preacher of the fire-and-brimstone variety narrates Jacks private moments with the condemnation of every human soul as a born sinner coupled with the insistence on free will. When Lucetta offers Jack a peeled egg, she is not Eve tempting Adam with forbidden fruit, she is hewing to the symbolism of the egg that speaks of rebirth, and in Jacks case, thats questioning his own musty religion that has brought him no consolation over the years. Indeed, Lucetta is the most interesting character in the story. An innocent soul who delights in her body, including sex with her husband or the others who tide her over while he is incarcerated. She is the one person without evil intentions and without malice of any kind. The meshing of purity of motive and animal-like sensuality is a startling, refreshing rebuke to standard Western mores, and provides Jovovich with a career-changing role that she undertakes with a provocatively gentle sweetness.
STONE doesnt belittle any religion as such, only the ossification that accrues to any organized group, sacred or profane. Even Jacks pastor tells him to be still and listen, though he is delivering the pat advice of an untested clergyman unable or unwilling recognize the struggle before him. The parallel with Jacks profession is striking. With an ending as enigmatic as the title character, STONE is the stuff of more than gripping entertainment. It is the parsing of self-imposed sterility that is as easy to shed as it is difficult to recognize.