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Good Letters

Early in director John Curran’s film Stone, parole officer Jack Mabry (Robert DeNiro) sits behind his desk and listens to longtime prisoner Gerald “Stone” Creeson (Edward Norton) plead for parole.

The corn-rowed Stone, doing time for a crime that caused his grandparents’ death, dares to tell Jack, “I’m clean as you.”

“Maybe, maybe not,” growls Jack. “I never broke the law!” So long as he focuses on a world divided between what is lawful and what is illegal, Jack’s in good shape.

Jack Mabry might remind you of another “Jack” from DeNiro’s past—bounty hunter Jack Walsh, who thinks himself superior to the white collar criminal played by Charles Grodin in Midnight Run. But Midnight Run finds outrageous comedy as a self-righteous enforcer is humbled by a philanthropic crook.

Stone takes sin and salvation more seriously. It suggests that those who divide the world into camps (and count themselves among the righteous) do so to their own peril.

During his commutes to and from the Michigan prison, Jack absorbs the perpetual rays of Christian talk radio—much like Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle (another DeNiro character) saw the city through a lens of inflammatory political commentary.

There’s nothing wrong with the airwave-evangelist’s claim that life is a spiritual battlefield. But Jack, making daily judgments over convicted criminals, isn’t comfortable with any analysis of his own record. How clean is he, really?

If Jack’s last name is meant as a reference to Mayberry, it’s a cynical reference indeed. As he and his wife Madylyn (Frances Conroy) carry on a weary ritual of reading a daily devotional, she points out that he tends to lose his place. That’s a telling detail. Unwilling to confront his own demons, Jack has lost his place—not just in the scriptures, but in his spiritual journey. His violent temper has alienated him from his daughter. His marriage is on life support. Rather than striving to change things, he sits, drinks, and watches television.

Stone finds Jack a tough nut to crack, so he makes a desperate play, raving about his sexy, lascivious girlfriend Lucetta (Milla Jovovich). Then he asks her to make a move on Jack, and she comes on like a vampire. Appealing to Jack’s ego, exploiting repressed longings, Lucetta peels away his defenses as effectively she scrapes the shell from a hard-boiled egg.

How many times have we seen this play out? Politicians and preachers point fingers, only to have their hypocrisy exposed. Stone is playing as elections bring out the worst in candidates, campaigners, and pundits. They demonize opponents instead of appealing to our better selves. Seeking ratings, news channels make headlines out of slander, distortion, and rage. The audience, mesmerized by the lurid display, turns the blame for societal ills on others who make them uncomfortable. Like Jack, we swallow oversimplifications and extremes. Casting our neighbors as monsters, we make it easy to deny our own ugliness.

Christian talk radio often encourages the same judgmental delusion. In recent years I’ve made frequent visits to Christian radio as a film critic, where I’ve heard hours of airtime spent on educating evangelicals about an endless parade of threats to their security. Pick your threat: liberals, homosexuals, Catholics, Michael Moore, Stephenie Meyer, Obama, or hipsters. Listeners call in and declare these “the end times,” urging the righteous to circle their wagons as if to protect their vulnerable Jesus from a zombie invasion.

This bombardment bends our hearts toward perpetual suspicion and condemnation. We get so worked up pointing at the specks in our neighbor’s eye that we miss—or rationalize away—the lumber in our own.

Managing caged crooks, Jack finds it easy to rationalize his own sins. Has he broken any law? No. But crime and sin are two different things.

By contrast, Stone’s own spiritual inquiry leads him to a humbling epiphany—that it’s possible to be a free man in a prison, while those outside the walls remain enslaved.

Curran is a director preoccupied with stories about marriage, temptation, and salvation. In We Don’t Live Here Anymore, he studied marital disintegration with clear references to the Garden of Eden and forbidden fruit. In The Painted Veil, he directed Edward Norton in the role of a good doctor whose wife is lured astray.

Stone is a flawed film, largely because Lucetta is a B-movie seductress preying on believable human beings with backgrounds and complicated hearts. That’s disappointing, since screenwriter Angus MacLachlan’s last film—Junebug—was a work of subtle beauty. Still, it’s great to see the great Robert DeNiro awaken after a string of paycheck performances. The whole cast enhances the screenplay’s strengths, making Stone one of the more ambitious explorations of sin, conscience, and spiritual longing in recent memory.

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