In Stone, an ambiguous film boasting a quartet of mesmerizing performances, Robert De Niro and Edward Norton are inscrutable antagonists in what appears to be a high-stakes game of liars' poker.
Norton is Stone, convicted arsonist, who hopes to win parole after serving eight years of his 10-to-15-year sentence. De Niro is Jack Mabry, parole officer on the brink of retirement, who will determine Stone's fate.
In the movie written by Angus MacLachlan (Junebug) and directed by John Curran (The Painted Veil), Judgment Day is at hand for both men and their wives. Two will be delivered, the others condemned to living hell in this film where it's hard, maybe impossible, to distinguish between manipulators and the manipulated.
Stone may be the guy behind bars but it is Mabry, the filmmakers strongly suggest, who is in emotional lockdown. For years he and his wife, Madylyn (Frances Conroy), have been in a stalemate, bound together by duty and God but not by love.
Contrast the Mabrys to Stone and his spouse, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), temptation with blue eyes. Although apart during his prison term, they are bound by a lust that, for one of them at least, might be spiritual love. When Stone perceives that ironbound Mabry isn't buying his professions of penitence, he dispatches Lucetta to melt the parole officer's moral armor.
Set to an edgy score played on what sounds like a zither tricked out with blades instead of strings, the film walks on razor's edge. Sound is important because Stone, godless convict, has read in a religious pamphlet that the spirit makes itself audible to the nonbeliever.
In a performance that recalls his startling debut as the altar boy accused of murder in Primal Fear, Norton is snaky and ambiguous. He is well-matched with De Niro, his costar in The Score, who brings a jeroboam of bottled rage (and his A game) to this face-off. In their supporting roles, Jovovich is irrepressibly sexy while Conroy haunts the film as a ghost of resignation.
I was with the movie until its head-scratcher of an ending, too oblique for its own good. Still, in the days since I saw it, I've thought a lot about the players in this zero-sum game.