Some people tell lies. Others live them.
Jack Mabry while appearing to live the life of a ‘good’ human being is confronted with thoughts that aren’t supposed to occur to such a person. He’s been married for over forty years, has never broken the law and works as a parole officer trying to reform people. But what does that do to him? There isn’t a soul he trusts; he’s carved that way. Prison inmates are trying to keep up with him by creating an impression and get him to believe that they’ve turned over a new leaf. With all the experience he’s had, he sees through all of it. Not for long.
Gerald Creeson better known as ‘stone’ is under the supervision of Jack. Empty and pointless is what he believes his life is as long as he’s in prison. There’s desperation to break free. He believes he deserves it. Attempting to needle the vulnerable side of Mabry by sending his sexy wife, Lucetta, to meet with him, he hopes to be released. How long could that last?
Lucetta is no femme fatale, as the trailer would have you believe. A buoyant, effusive, middle-aged nymphomaniac is what she is. Stone tells Jack that she’s an ‘alien’.
Madlyn, Jack’s wife is like stone. Jack has threatened her before and the memory of the experience doesn’t fade away. She’s stuck in a loveless marriage and doesn’t have the nerve to raise the issue about her ‘soul being kept in a dungeon’.
There’re some interesting issues raised by the film, and without being answered or taken a stand for or against, are put in front of us through the characters. Does sin come naturally to human beings? Does being physically imprisoned mean no freedom? Are we all hypocrites after all? Is it foolish to sought after the righteous path? Is there a definite righteous path? Is there a higher power watching over us and our actions?
Jack is the lead character and it’s his perspective that is the focal point of the film, which is why we don’t know what’s happening. Like him, we don’t know whether to trust the characters or not because clearly they all have their own motives. The narrative doesn’t intend to spoon-feed its viewers. You have to see the film again through the eyes of each character, pay attention to their reactions and understand their motives with which you determine whether they have done what Jack believes they did, or not. This is no ordinary thriller. It’s heavy. It’s complex. It’s an in depth character study. John Curran’s real deal is in displaying these characters, how they feel. What’s going on inside their heads.
Acting is first rate. Robert Deniro, a name that echoes unforgettable characters- Jake Lamotta, Travis Bicke, Jimmy Conway, Vito Corleone and a lesser known Rupert Pupkin, has shown that even at this age he’s capable of doing much more than what he’s been doing for the past ten years- frowning, cursing, head tilting and spastic nodding. Edward Norton, who has proven time and again that he’s not merely an actor with expressions but a character artist, delivers a gritty performance. This one’s nothing like his other characters. People have complained about this role being similar to Primal fear and American History X particularly because all three of them are prisoners but that’s just being myopic. That’s like saying Robert Deniro is not versatile because he’s played only gangsters and tough guys, or even more abstract- in almost every movie of his, he’s malicious. It’s not what viewers choose to reduce those complex characters to, with a word or two. It’s the way the characters are played. Vito Corleone and Jimmy Conway are both Italian Mafiosos but are their characters similar? Not at all. In spite of all the praise I’ve given these two actors, it is Milla Jovovich who steals the film. Her performance is something that I’d characterize as a combination of Karen Black in Five easy pieces and Uma Thurman in Pulp fiction. She’s the soul of the film. Frances Conroy is spot on with the character. She doesn’t have much screen time but when she’s on screen, you see her dying within and losing hope, shred by shred.
The director, John Curran and the screenwriter, Angus Maclachlan have made an original film that works only because the actors understand its subtleties. The other elements although unable to atomize themselves on independent merit are all appropriate. The sound design is at a strangely different frequency focusing more on background noises, the score is haunting and the cinematography, I have to point out, would’ve really enriched the feel of the film had it been shot in black and white with low key lighting- in the realm of film noir. What’s left at the end is an incomplete puzzle of a film that you’re expected to finish. Stone doesn’t go easy on you. It is a film of major distinction that made me feel privileged as a film viewer. For my intelligence was not just respected, but trusted.