by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

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 that possibility.

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 seen.

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 fears.

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 unidentified stranger?

  • 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 eccentrically?

  • How does DeNiro's wife find out about Milla? (Assuming she does.)

  • 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.

DVD Blu-Ray


3 Roger Ebert (of 4 stars)
47 Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)
57 (of 100)










5.8 IMDB summary (of 10)
B- Yahoo Movies












Box Office Mojo. It never reached more than 125 theaters and grossed a mere $1.8 million. It never made the USA's top twenty films at any time.










  • Milla Jovovich showed her breasts briefly











Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


A  smart, engaging film in many ways, but also a very frustrating one.