A stern four-character chamber piece, "Stone" begins with the line "You keep my soul in a dungeon" and follows it up immediately with "I'm leaving." This is not a movie afraid of stating its business and hitting the nail on the head. Yet it is about people who do not leave, at least up front; it is about being stuck but nearing a boiling point.
Odd in its mixture of bluntness and indirection, screenwriter Angus MacLachlan's study in biblical temptation is saved from its own heavy-handedness by a fine quartet of actors. MacLachlan wrote the wonderful "Junebug," a more delicately layered affair, and has written far more, in total, for the stage than for the screen. "Stone" proceeds as a series of interlocking two-person encounters, as we watch as one person gets further and further underneath another person's skin. Robert De Niro and Edward Norton play a Michigan parole officer nearing retirement and a convicted arsonist, respectively. Jack Mabry (De Niro) must determine the mental fitness of Gerald "Stone" Creeson (Norton). "I'm clean as anybody," Stone says, tauntingly, in an early encounter. "Clean as you."
We know he's right: In the film's prologue (the "dungeon" bit), set 30-some years earlier, Jack threatens to kill his infant daughter when Jack's wife, Madylyn ( Frances Conroy in the later scenes), tells him she's leaving. Since that incident Jack and Madylyn have buried their resentments in near-silence, drab routine and Bible study. The film's soundtrack is flooded with the sound of talk-radio callers and a broadcast of what is apparently the only show anyone in the Detroit area listens to: a faith-based, paranoia-stoking program.