It must be difficult for ageing actors to consistently maintain quality performances in their twilight years. Even the best struggle a little bit – the choice of roles dwindling, their abilities getting called into question, the pressure must get the best of the majority of them. Some will die great actors – Clint Eastwood may never perform in a movie again, but I’ll always think of him as a great actor – where others will only be remembered for their ‘early, best days’ – like Brando – and the later films they do are often best left forgotten. Pacino has been struggling of late, I can’t remember the last time I saw him in something truly spectacular. And the once-great actor who will always be remembered for his benchmark method-acting early work, Robert De Niro, hasn’t done a great movie in 15 years. 15 years! For the last decade and a half – since he gave us the powerful Heat/Casino one-two knockout salvo in the mid-nineties – the man has been on a perpetual downward slope. Sure, he did a few enjoyable, even occasionally very good, movies, but they were increasingly few and far between, and, even they became worse and worse quality. Seriously, when I remember back to what I thought about Men of Honour and The Score – both early 2000s movies from The Legend – at the time when I first watched them, I didn’t really rate them as proper quality De Niro movies. They were pretty average really, in compared to some of his greats. But, looking back with 20:20 hindsight – and comparing to the quality of his most recent work – I feel like fans should almost be grateful for those early 2000s works. That’s how bad things have become. I mean, have you seen Godsend? Or Hide and Seek? It’s bad enough that his best press comes from Meet the Parents sequels (which are arguably unnecessary in the first place), but worse still that he just doesn’t seem to be able to either a) pick or b) deliver a decent “straight” performance anymore. And yet I never give up hope. I will always be on the lookout for the next potentially great De Niro film, even a worthy cameo. At the moment I’m looking forward to The Killer Elite – it’s getting reasonably good buzz at the moment, with a cast that includes Clive Owen; is probably headed up by Jason Statham and also features, obviously in a supporting role, De Niro. Like I said, I live in hope.
Released late last year, Stone promised a top cast on top form, with a decent story and script with which they could work their magic – reuniting De Niro with his co-star from 2001’s The Score, the acclaimed but precocious Diva, Edward Norton. It bombed at the Box Office, barely clawing back a third of its already-modest $22 Million budget. And it received mixed reviews at best, with many vocally critical of how damn boring and meandering the film was, and how wasted the stars were. More generous critics gave the two renowned leads more kudos for their work, despite the film that they were in, whilst the select few regarded Stone as some kind of underrated drama, subtle, insightful and boasting outstanding performances from all involved. I tell you what, I really wanted this to be a great De Niro film – I would have even settled for it being a decent De Niro film – but it is a far cry from either. Yes, it has more to it than meets the eye, yes it has symbolism and subtext and blah blah blah. It’s just pretty painful to watch. No, it’s not a bad film like the recent De Niro / Pacino collaboration Righteous Kill (how on earth did they agree to do that?), but it’s almost as difficult to bear – just for different reasons.
The story revolves around the eponymous – and self-named – ‘Stone’, a convicted arsonist who is being reviewed to see whether or not he deserves a parole hearing. His correctional officer, Jack Mabry, is approaching retirement, and takes one last stab at getting to the core of Stone’s issues. Mabry is a decent prison worker, fair in his appraisals and by-the-book, with a wife of thirty years and an adult daughter. But Stone senses in him a deep-seated repression, possibly as a result of his wife’s zealous religious predisposition, and sets his seductive girlfriend, Lucetta on him, with a view to ‘persuading’ him to sanction an early release.
I know that scripts written for the stage can often make for great movies – the Michael Caine / Lawrence Olivier classic Sleuth (note, not the abysmal remake) is a prime example – but I have to blame some of the failings of this movie on its origins as a play. And the director may be capable of moody, brooding minimalist stylisation, but, despite all the trapping of such, none of these elements make this a good movie per se. If anything, they just make it all the more pretentious. The story is strung out over an unnecessarily long 105 minutes (for a dialogue-driven drama, only about half of this time actually has dialogue in it!) with a view to enhancing the movie’s worth. Sorry, I didn’t buy it.
And De Niro? He should have known better. Sure, he is on admirably restrained form as the retiring correctional officer, Mabry, only occasionally sparking up into the shouty man we are more familiar with, but his character has no real depth. Yes, there’s a great prologue flashback which shows the horrific moment that arguably defines the character’s latter life, and the brooding resentment within him, but since the only glimpse we have of it is at the beginning, it affords little weight to the rest of the proceedings. Honestly, I don’t know how the man could stand up at the Awards ceremony and cite this movie as one of the most underrated of his recent works. This film isn’t underrated, it isn’t misunderstood. I totally get it. And it’s still a boring, pitiful excuse for a drama.
Norton? Well I’m not sure he knows any better. He’s capable of great work, but he’s become a little too ‘precious’ for his own good. Here, as the corn-rowed Stone, he’s been cited by some as putting in a performance reminiscent of his early work in Primal Fear, and also his later acclaimed films American History X and 25th Hour. Indeed, I can see a bit of all of them in his performance here, but that’s half the problem – it’s just a mish-mash of previous characters, Norton never quite making the role of Stone a unique entity in its own right.
Even Milla Jovovich, who has been generally quite favourably regarded for her performance here as the seductive Lucetta – especially when compared to her standard ‘Resident Evil’-level school of acting – did nothing for me. There’s nothing here we haven’t seen before (a marginally better femme fatale-ish turn was in Love and a .45) and, at least for me, just the fact that she’s not playing a heroine, doesn’t automatically make her performance any more admirable. If anything, it just adds to the list of unpleasantries that this film appears to already have in spades.
Don’t misunderstand me. I really didn’t set out to dislike this movie. I totally get it – I understand the symbolic wasp trapped in the window-frame at the beginning, echoed in the final act; the full-circle story of redemption – for all involved – hinged upon a relationship that was arguably never meant to be in the first place; the unwitting justice that emanated from an act of coercion etc etc. I understand the supposedly deep religious undertones, the Biblical references: even Stone’s name appears to be related to how the Bible regards the judgment of others. But none of it really matters when you don’t care about the characters, what they are doing, or where they are going. Perhaps if they had made more of Jack’s history, fleshed out his background better – rather than just meandering on artsy wordless sequences – this could have stood a chance of having some meaning, some direction. But just because the filmmakers aspired to some lofty deep meaning, does not a good film make.
As it is, there is very little to gain from watching Stone, except to add a nail to the mental coffin that the once great De Niro has built within your mind over the last few years. It’s 105 minutes of my life that I wanted back, and there are really very few films that I have ever said that about. Shamefully, it’s not the first De Niro film that fits that category either. Massively disappointed, watch at your peril.