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Robert De Niro and Edward Norton Cross Paths in "Stone"

Stone Cold

Moviegoers first saw Edward Norton in 1996’s Primal Fear, as a sociopath who persuades both his attorney (Richard Gere) and the audience that he is innocent of a charge of murder until the final reel. It’s a film you can’t help but recall as you watch Stone, at least through the first half (and more so if you make the mistake of arriving late and missing the pre-credits sequence.)

Norton plays the title character, a young man in prison for his part in an arson fire that killed his grandparents. He is cocky and smart, and he doesn’t like wasting his life behind bars, especially when he has a beautiful and adoring wife (Milla Jovovich) whose faithfulness he doubts. So when he comes before an examining officer whose job it is either to recommend him to the parole board or turn thumbs down, you can see him thinking, “How can I play this guy?”

The officer is Jack Mabry (Robert De Niro), a veteran counting the days before his retirement. A straight arrow who prides himself on his psychological acuity, we see him speaking at his late brother’s funeral, saying, “He lived right—what else could you want people to say about you?”

But we also remember De Niro’s signature role, as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, and we recognize some of him here: listening to religious radio, obsessed with doing right but unable to open up emotionally to anyone around him, least of all his wife (a scary, nearly wordless performance by Frances Conroy). And we wonder: Is that comparison apt?

Stone is not the movie it initially seems to be. Which is a good thing, because the movie it starts out as does not seem very good at all. It got bad word of mouth when it played at the Toronto Film Festival, and I wonder how much of that came from viewers who left after the first reel. I admit that I was tempted to do the same when faced with 100 minutes of Norton’s white-boy gangsta lingo. (When Jack says, “I don’t consider this polite conversation” during one of their conversations, it’s quite the understatement.) And Stone’s apparent ploy to have his wife seduce Jack so that they could blackmail him into a release recommendation seemed to be taking the movie no place interesting.

But I stayed, because there was clearly something disquieting beneath Jack’s surface, more than the old story of a man regretting his lost years. Stone turns out to be not a thriller but an unlikely drama about spiritual striving and its failure.

Working from a script by Angus MacLachlan (Junebug), director John Curran (The Painted Veil, We Don’t Live Here Anymore) constructs a subtly stifling world where both men are imprisoned by forces they need to understand. When I saw the film, I was puzzled by Curran’s reluctance to put De Niro and Norton in the same frame during their numerous conversations. I suppose his thinking was to enforce this isolation of each, which works for the film in the end but is frustrating as you watch it. When you see a film with two powerful actors, you want to see them reacting and playing off each other. But then, this is a film that sets out to make you think its one thing before turning into another thing altogether.

Robert De Niro and Edward Norton have been friends since they first worked together in 2001 on The Score. Both appeared at the Toronto press conference for Stone. Sporting a massive beard, presumably for his role as an American professor who falls in love with Monica Bellucci in the Italian film Manual of Love 3, De Niro was relatively relaxed, though that didn’t necessarily mean that his answers were any more illuminating than usual. For his part ,Norton also tended to downplay a lot of assumptions about the rigors of acting. Some of their comments:

AV: What kind of research did you do for your roles?

Norton: This one for me was pretty straightforward because the environment the character is living in is so specific. We were lucky to have a prison north of Detroit that was accommodating and accessible to us, they made a number of the inmates available. It was about trying to dig into the authenticity of those guys, experience how they speak.

De Niro: We had a guy there who had worked in that prison who was the technical consultant to me. The story, my character and what he goes through, I could empathize with him a lot.

AV: How did you approach the characters physically?

Norton: The cornrows [hairstyle] were real. We couldn’t find a Hollywood hairstylist who knew how to do rows, so I went to downtown Detroit and met a lady named Crystal who set me up, gave me my doo-rag and mousse.

A lot of people ask me what do you pull on from your real life, and it just doesn’t work that way for me. I look at these things as a challenge of imagination and empathy. I get much more out of meeting people who have really lived these lives than I do digging around in my own limited experiences. I thought the idea was very interesting, that a person who’s struggling might have a radical shift in perspective or an enlightenment though a certain experience. That was something I related to, the idea of a transformative experience.

AV: The movie poses questions about the nature of fate. Has that been an issue in your own life?

De Niro: I sometimes think that as I get older things have been predetermined for me, whether I liked it, wanted it, wished for it, or whatever. Others, you do have a choice and you can change, but that choice you make is still part of his grand scheme. It’s like those birds that fly 9,000 miles every year from the northern hemisphere to the southern hemisphere, they find their way every year. As you get older in a cycle you realize that this happened but in a way I guess it was planned for me.

AV: You have both directed films. Do you continue to learn new things about that craft from acting in films?

De Niro: I only see myself doing at the most three more movies, one of which will be a sequel to The Good Shepherd. You always learn something new, even if it’s technological things,

Norton: On a technical level things are constantly changing. Every film I work on there’s a new set of interesting pieces of gear, things that are making filmmaking easier and easier—not creatively, but the degree to which you can do some thing pretty sophisticated work with just a camera and your laptop. So I’m drawn to that. But every film there’s always something to learn. The couple weeks I got to sit around talking to guys who are incarcerated was a hugely memorable experience. So I love that part of it every time.

AV: Having had success with both comedy and drama, which is harder and which do you prefer?

De Niro: Certain types of comedy are easier in some ways. In my experience you just try things, and if you go over the top they just cut it out. This movie was more difficult in some ways because it looks easy to do on the page, but there are subtleties and rhythms you have to get into.

I like things with irony. The Italians are very good at that, having drama but at the same time it’s very funny. That kind of comedy to me is probably the most interesting. The outright comedy is another type of thing. I just do it and if it works it works hopefully. It’s fun for me.

AV: Did your research for this film give you any insight into current problems with the American penal system?

Norton: That might be above my paygrade. I’m not sure I’m qualified to comment on the effectiveness of the parole system. But I will say that the people we met and worked with us are very dedicated public servants, very undermanned and overwhelmed by the insane case loads they have to work with. I don’t have deep insight into it, but these people seemed horrendously overworked, I couldn’t imagine how daunting it would be to make penetrating decisions under those conditions.

Watch the trailer for Stone

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