If the only thing you’ve seen of the new Robert De Niro/Edward Norton film, Stone, is the trailer, you may feel that your membership in the Robert De Niro Disappointment Club has been justified yet again. It’s always interesting to see what marketers think will sell a movie, and the advertising we wind up with often says a lot about the marketers’ valuation of its stars and expectation of its audience without saying much about the movie itself. Such is the case with Stone. The trailer features the smirking face of Gerald “Stone” Creeson (Norton), the convicted arsonist seeking parole; the inviting-if-slightly-pasty-and-bruised legs of Stone’s nubile wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), whose trailer park sex appeal is being used to influence the parole officer in charge of the case; and most of all, the trademark growl of Jack Mabrey (De Niro), the aforementioned parole officer, who roars at Stone that if he wants to leave prison “you will go through me!” It’s all meant to give you the impression that this is another epic De Niro battle of masculine posturing, punching and swearing. In fact, it’s anything but.
Jack is more than just a gruff introvert with a gun who uses violence and threats to solve problems (though he is that, only the latest in the long tradition of such De Niro characters). As we learn in an effective if somewhat stilted opening scene, Jack is a lost man—no, not as unnervingly lost as Travis Bickle, and not as pitiably, palpably lost as Jake LaMotta, but lost nonetheless, dogged by an aimlessness and pain and an inability to live in the world, groping for a meaning and purpose he’s been waiting all his adult life to find. He listens to Christian talk radio, reads the Bible, and attends church every Sunday with his long- and for the most part quietly suffering wife, Madlyn (Frances Conroy, so good at being simultaneously cowed and furious), but he remains adrift, and feels it deeply. When he corners his pastor (David A. Hendricks) for help, all the church leader can offer is vague bromides (“There’s an old Bible passage,” the pastor tells Jack; are there a lot of new Bible passages? “It says, ‘Be still, and know that I am the light.’ It means that God has a plan for you.”). Jack, waiting in years of pained, bitter silence for God’s plan to become apparent, is forced to make due with bourbon and hitting golf balls into the cornfields near his rural home.
Then Lucetta appears, all bedroom-eyed and slithery. At Stone’s urging, she begins to contact Jack, flattering him and charming him in an effort to secure Jack’s recommendation to the board (the movie never explains what the actual plan is, whether to seduce and blackmail Jack, or to use sexual favors as a bribe, and Stone seems at times to be going in more than one direction and motivated by more than one thing—sometimes in the same scene; this seems less like a designed contradiction than a flaw in the writing, and it gives the marketers plenty of fodder for their bait-and-switch). Lucetta being played by Milla Jovovich, the plan works and Jack falls into an affair with her. It would likely have worked for anyone at that point. Jack is weeks away from retirement and wondering what it’s all been about, this endless cycle of imprisoning and releasing people, chasing a redemption that never seems to be entirely real or achievable. Feeling the profound lack of spiritual truths, he opts for a physical one (“If the body feels good, the mind just follows,” Lucetta tells Jack when they first meet. A bird pendant dangles from her neck, a counterpoint to the trapped bee motif that recurs for Madlyn.).
Stone, too, is more than a sleazy criminal with a hot wife and a plan, and Norton is doing more than a mash-up of Aaron Stampler from Primal Fear and Derek Vinyard from American History X. As much as Jack, but less mindfully, Stone is lost, too, and he happens upon true revelation one day in the prison library in the form of a pamphlet about a quack religion which, nevertheless, holds meaning for him. In a matter of days, he finds the beatified truth that has eluded Jack for a lifetime. It’s pat, but Norton makes Stone thoughtful and watchful even as he edges up to insanity, and it works.
More notable, even, than the revelation that this movie is trying something interesting is the revelation that in his performance as Jack, De Niro is, well, trying. If you want to know the state of De Niro’s career, how about this: A movie about him being generically tough is considered more saleable than one in which he does something to justify his reputation as the Greatest Actor of His Generation. Watching De Niro in these scenes inspires a complex reaction, part invigoration, part nostalgia, part frustration. The performance is intricate and thrilling. In a scene with Lucetta, Jack mentions his granddaughter, and when Lucetta asks him how much he sees the girl, De Niro manages—in his tone and pauses, in his face and his body language, but mostly in that wordless something that’s at the heart of his best work—to instantly convey that Jack can never see the granddaughter because his relationship with his daughter, the girl’s mother, is hopelessly broken. Indeed, we understand in a crushing flash just how it’s broken, just what an inarticulate mess this man must have been as a father, how inaccessible he must have been, how unable to reconcile his needs to hers. But even more than that, De Niro makes it impossible in that small moment not to feel the pain all this causes Jack. He knows he’s failed, and he may even know how and why, but he’s a powerless bystander to it all. “They live upstate,” Jack’s dialogue goes. “We don’t see them much.” But De Niro makes it mean so much more than the words.
The performance left me wondering something I’ve wondered countless times before: Why has De Niro’s late career work been so disappointing? Like most people, I suppose I’ve chalked it up to indifference, creative burnout, or both. With Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, The Godfather II, and all the rest under his belt, he reached middle age a rich, revered legend. Like Stevie Wonder or John Updike, his post-prime work has often felt like a matter of habit more than necessity, and his well-known selectivity and discernment seem to have vanished.
But I couldn’t help wonder, as I watched him bring Jack so vividly and painfully to life, if his latter-day work isn’t better than everyone usually thinks. Maybe the problem is as much us as him. Looking over his filmography, I was surprised to find a lot more variety in the last 15 years than I’d given him credit for: Yes, there are the City by the Seas, the Righteous Kills, the Ronins, the Heats (an awful film, I don’t care what anyone says), but he also played the Archbishop of Lima in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Captain Shakespeare in Stardust, the impulsive, semi-comic dullard Louis Gara in Jackie Brown, and Arthur Lustig in Great Expectations. This isn’t to say he necessarily played these roles brilliantly, or brought anything unique or unexpected to them (and he isn’t helped by the fact that none of these movies are much better than mediocre, which may be half his problem), but is it possible that in our decades-long anticipation of and craving for another Johnny Boy or Michael Vronsky, we’ve all give him too little credit for creating other characters in lesser films that still have something to offer? At a minimum, his credits suggest a greater spirit of adventure than I generally give him credit for. Maybe just working competently on projects that please him is enough—for him and us.
Ultimately, Stone succeeds at exploring the search for meaning and redemption, though there are some mechanical problems. For instance, because the motivations and intentions of the would-be thriller subplot are never understandable, especially for Stone himself, the tensions are confused. Are we supposed to be worried that Stone will resent Jack’s relationship with Lucetta? That Madlyn will find out about the affair? That Jack will get fired? We don’t know; it’s a moving target, and the stakes for the characters are unclear. But the plot devices the marketers put to such misleading use never feel like anything the movie is committed to, and the film is at its best when we’re seeing Stone and Jack grope their ways to something better. In the final scene, with Jack crouched beside the packed boxes in his office, he thinks he hears something, maybe the faint beginnings of ultimate redemption, and he looks up. Maybe De Niro hears it, too.