John J. Curran infuses seemingly every shot of his drama Stone with the foreboding weightiness of Greek tragedy. He's aiming for something like Sophocles, but he ends up with something sophomoric.
Soon-to-be-retired, heavy-drinking probation officer Jack (Robert De Niro) already has his mind on the golf course. He's passed off all his long-term cases, and is only following through on the last few as they come up for parole. One of these cases is Gerald "Stone" Creeson (Edward Norton), an arsonist with both a chip on his shoulder and a nymphomaniacal wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), whom Stone encourages to contact Jack. She follows orders, and soon enough Jack -- who's emotionally distant from his wife, Madylyn (Frances Conroy) -- is caught up in her erotic hold. Meanwhile, Stone discovers religion, and his once-aggressive demeanor evolves into a serene acceptance of his fate. As the date of Stone's hearing approaches, Jack attempts to keep his indiscretions hidden, and figure out if Stone's change of heart is genuine.
Throughout the movie, Jack listens to religious talk radio, and he reads a Bible passage daily with his wife. The movie treats religion seriously, because by doing so Jack can fall even farther -- he can fail not only in his own eyes but in God's as well. The problem is that the main character never feels like he makes a choice -- he is what he is, and while he may feel bad about it, he's not really capable of change. Curran establishes this in the movie's opening scene, set decades before the bulk of the movie, in which Jack threatens to throw his young daughter out a second-story window after Madylyn says she's leaving him. The sequence paints Jack as such a monster, so haunted by never-revealed personal demons, that watching him slowly give in to Lucetta in the present day isn't a surprise, or much of a struggle.
On the plus side, Norton is really strong in the title role. Stone starts off a hardened killer, but his religious conversion seems genuine. Jack isn't sure what to make of his charge's attitude change -- he's worried he's being played -- and the audience isn't sure either thanks to Norton's full commitment. It's a performance very reminiscent of his memorable debut in Primal Fear, but this is a more fully rounded character. The conflict between Stone's seeming ability to alter his outlook and his life and Jack's inability to get over himself makes for the most interesting aspect of the movie. Sadly, by injecting what is essentially a dark-hearted, sexy noir with heavy-handed symbolism (a bee squished in a window pane, the ceaseless religious talk on the radio), Curran never finds the right tone to let the most fascinating aspects of his story hit home.
If Curran had absorbed the lessons of noir masters and allowed some dark humor into Stone, he could have had something here. Instead, he's made a pretentious fable.