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The marketing tag line for Stone is pretty generic: “Some people tell lies. Others live them.” That’s really too simplistic; this drama has a much more interesting message lurking in the darkness.

Squashed Lives

Milla Jovovich is a stone-cold temptress in Stone
Milla Jovovich is a stone-cold temptress in Stone

The themes running through Stone, which was written by Junebug scribe Angus MacLachlan, have less to do with pure lies and more to do with ruminations on manipulation and goodness.

The movie starts with a fly being squashed in a window pane. It’s certainly symbolic, as all four of the lead characters have been squashed in one way or another.

For Jack Mabry (Robert DeNiro, Taxi Driver), he lived in the shadow of a perfect brother. Maintaining a tight grip on his own life, he once threatened to throw his very own young daughter out a second-floor window if his wife, Madylyn, left him. Fittingly, he works as a parole review officer, assessing who is good enough to leave prison and live a free life. All the while, Madylyn (Frances Conroy, The Aviator) has lived a suffocated, insular life under Jack’s control.

At the other end of the spectrum, Stone (Edward Norton, The Incredible Hulk) is a white trash hoodlum imprisoned for covering up the murder of his grandparents at the hands of his cousin. He fantasizes about the knock-out sex life he has with his wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich, Resident Evil: Afterlife). And he openly shares those fantasies with Jack, telling him, “She’s a dime, dog!”

That Lucetta is quite the character. She’s a sweet schoolteacher who instructs her students to do something nice for another student, but to keep it a secret and not let anybody know what they did or for whom. Outside of the class, though, she’s a manipulative sexpot whose idea of doing something nice is undermining Jack’s staid lifestyle in order to set Stone free. She’s the kind of nutcase who can turn on a dime, morphing from a sweet smile to a menacing glare in a heartbeat. That kind of woman bodes no good for any man.

Sin City

Stone is loaded with great performances. Norton, reteaming with director John Curran (The Painted Veil), credibly moves from a dreadlocked thug to an introspective individual. After a string of lackluster movies, De Niro once again sinks his teeth into a meaty role. Jovovich, a formidable action star, smolders and holds her own while sharing the screen with Norton and De Niro, proving she’s equally capable of tackling dramatic roles of substance.

In addition to the solid cast and a strong storyline that demands consideration, there’s a wicked sense of humor at work here, the kind that requires a degree of attentiveness that might challenge some viewers.

As their conversation careens from discussion to confrontation, Stone quips to Jack, “I don’t want no beef with you. I just want to be a vegetarian.”

And in regard to Jack’s back pain, Lucetta asks innocently enough, at least in tone, if he got that ache from playing ball or in some war. “No,” he says, it’s “just life.” When Lucetta offers Jack an Easter egg decorated by one of her kids, he accepts. In a later scene, his wife of 43 years offers him an egg and he flat-out declines.

The strong suit, though, is a compelling story that analyzes religion and prison, good and evil, sin and virtue.

Jack is an analog man living in a digital world; he still has the old, corded land phone at home and he doesn’t have a cell phone. He’s on the verge of retirement and this man, Stone, is one of his last cases. But it’s a classic case that will prove to serve as Jack’s career capstone. Stone will challenge all of Jack’s ideals and perceptions – and turn his life inside out.

Cold Hearts

The main theme running through Stone centers around a person’s heart and a person’s belief system.

After 8 years in prison, Stone is finally asking himself questions about life and what it will mean for him to be a “good” person once he is paroled. Jack, on the other hand, goes through the motions of attending church every Sunday and listening to religious programming on the radio while commuting to and from work.

“The heart of the man does matter,” says one radio announcer.

But Jack doesn’t feel a thing. His heart has turned to stone. He doesn’t believe in anything, not even himself.

The stories of Stone and Jack move in polar opposite directions. While studying up on all the world’s religions, Stone picks up on some ideas that stick with him, like people hearing sounds before a personal revelation, as though they’re becoming God’s tuning fork.

In the noisy environs of prison, Stone turns increasingly restless while wrestling with his inner self. Witnessing a cold-blooded murder right outside his cell serves as his own personal epiphany, a turning point in which the noise – at least temporarily – is drowned out and Stone starts listening more closely to his heart.

Sound Judgment

Stone is the kind of dark, moody drama that lingers long after the movie ends. There’s a lot to mull over, but the key concept revolves around the idea that goodness cannot be faked and, while sin is inbred, goodness is not necessarily a natural state. Goodness has to be desired, it has to be felt.

In Jack’s opinion, nobody ever changes for the better, not even after years served in prison, either behind a desk or in a cell. But while Jack’s morality goes tumbling down the hill, Stone goes in search of personal peace and clarity. “God speaks to us in mysterious ways,” he comments. And he also picks up on a particularly strong truth: challenges happen to people so they can overcome the obstacles and advance in life.

After the stories in Stone unravel, evolve, or grow, depending on the character’s point of view, each of the lead characters winds up in a different place from where they started.

By then, for Jack, all of the preaching has dulled into nothing more than static.