Chances are you never heard of this film, or perhaps remember it only
vaguely. You'll probably be surprised to find out that Stone is a project
which undoubtedly began with serious aspirations toward picking up some
hardware during award season. The stars are arguably the greatest actors
of their respective generations: Edward Norton and Robert DeNiro. Each of
the men is assigned to do something at which he excels. Norton gets a
chance to disappear into a unique and interesting character, while DeNiro
returns to forgotten form by showing off his considerable dramatic chops.
Hey, maybe I'm just grateful to see him in a film without "Analyze" or "Focker"
in the title. Despite superb performances from both men and the script's
willingness to take on some weighty issues, the film came and went without
fanfare, earning neither box office success nor critical acclaim.
So what happened?
I could prattle on about why the film disappeared without a
trace. It has plenty of flaws.
For one thing, the direction is pedestrian because the
visual presentation consists almost entirely of one-on-one conversations
between people sitting in mundane, claustrophobic rooms. It is
essentially a talky stage play for four characters, and there are a lot
of facial close-ups.
For another, the film can never seem to decide whether it
is a drama or a thriller, and the few scenes which could have some
dramatic tension seem to be flat and underplayed, probably on purpose,
for reasons which will become evident as you continue reading.
For a third, it has a couple of scenes that don't seem to
connect to the rest of the film. My guess is that the connective tissue
was lost when other scenes were deleted, but that's just conjecture and
I could easily be wrong. It may have been designed that way in order to
puzzle and/or mislead the viewer. You'll soon see why I have admitted
None of those negative elements are really at the core of
what will make the film fail or succeed in your eyes. On balance, I would
say it is a good film, even a distinguished one in certain ways, and you
may love it. But you may also hate it, depending on your personal attitude
toward ambiguity in the narrative process. There is nothing inherently
wrong with ambiguity, of course. To the contrary, many people argue that
properly managed indirection is a hallmark of truly great art, and that a
brilliant artist should engage the thought process of his admirers rather
than spoon-feeding them a solution. Endless dissertations have been
written on Hamlet's madness, for example, and many of the most memorable
films, like Inception or Blade Runner or Memento, are cryptic. Was Deckerd
a replicant in Blade Runner? It is ambiguous. Even the film's creators
disagree, and they cover the full spectrum of opinions on this subject.
Because of that ambiguity we get to enter the creative process in a real
or imagined conversation with the creators and among ourselves. But
there's a big downside to being cryptic. Although ambiguity is a powerful
weapon, it also has a tendency to misfire, and only the greatest artists
can successfully negotiate the difficult line between being subtly delphic
and being befuddled. Ambiguity done well is mysterious and alluring, but
when mismanaged it is annoying and confusing. Furthermore, the human
tolerance for deliberately planned uncertainty varies greatly from
individual to individual. That assertion brings us back to the topic at
hand, namely the film listed in the rubric above. I'd suggest that no
matter how high your tolerance level for the equivocal, this film will
test your patience. It is perhaps the most ambiguous film I have ever
The story's set-up is simple. Edward Norton is a convicted
arsonist trying to earn a parole and DeNiro is his stodgy, humorless
parole officer. Norton is not sure whether he can convince DeNiro of the
merits of his case, so he assigns his sexy, devoted wife (Milla) to do
whatever it takes to seal the deal. DeNiro has always been rigorously
professional in the past, but he is a joyless man who is starting to think
he has nothing to live for, and he is on the verge of retirement anyway,
so he figures "what the hell," and caves in to Milla's advances. At first
he recommends Norton's parole, not because of his sex with Milla, but
because he becomes genuinely convinced that Norton has reformed. At least
that's how he tries to salve his conscience. He finally comes to conclude
that Norton has been conning him, and he further realizes that Norton
might use his freedom to gain some kind of twisted revenge on society or
on DeNiro himself. Unfortunately, the parole officer's innate integrity
kicks in too slowly, too late to prevent the wheels of justice from
grinding out a release for Norton.
At that point there are some "thriller" elements which I
won't spoil. The remainder of the movie consists of DeNiro battling his
The unique thing about this film is that there is not a
single plot element that can be described with certainty.
Does Norton genuinely experience a religious epiphany, or
is he simply running an elaborate con? (Or perhaps both - maybe what
stars out as a con becomes real?)
Does Milla really start to develop affection for DeNiro, or
is she merely manipulating him?
Does DeNiro decide to try to keep Norton in jail out of
fear for his own safety, out of conscience, or because he wants to keep
having sex with Milla?
Does Norton cause an accident to DeNiro, as DeNiro
logically concludes, or was that incident caused by natural causes, as
DeNiro's wife avers.
Why is there a scene of Milla having joyless sex with an
Why is there a scene in which Norton witnesses another
convict being beaten to death?
Why does Norton stare at a mural of a deer while smiling
How does DeNiro's wife find out about Milla? (Assuming she
Does DeNiro's wife lie about the natural causes?
How does the tension between the men finally get resolved?
Beats me. I think I can answer most of those questions
satisfactorily, but I would be basing my answers on the part of the script
I wrote in my head. The film never really comes out and clarifies
anything. You could make counter arguments to every one of my contentions,
and there would be no clear way to resolve our dispute.
The director ends the film by thumbing his nose at
conventional narrative. DeNiro is in his office cleaning out his desk for
retirement. He shuffles a few papers wordlessly, looks around the room,
then looks at the clock and the film cuts to black, as if they simply ran
out of film with more story to tell. The credits roll.
What can I tell you? That ending, and the film in general,
crafts a deliberate balancing act between engaging brilliance and
provocative irritation. It's really your own attitude toward that balance
which will ultimately determine whether you consider this film a
worthwhile investment of your time.