Ultimately Stone sags under its own overblown philosophical weight, with a strained and painfully obvious spiritual subtext finally smothering what could have been a simple, effective psychological thriller.
What looked like a juicily absurd film noir disguised as a generational acting battle is something closer to a dirge -- a dead-serious meditation on faith and grace, redemption and damnation.
Stone could have been some sort of a procedural, a straightforward crime movie, but it's too complex for that. It is actually interested in the minds of these characters, and how they react to a dangerous situation.
Genuinely 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.
You can feel the movie's gears grinding throughout, first in the rote suspense mechanics and later in the ham-fisted religiosity (conveyed through an endless soundtrack of evangelistic talk radio).
If you're of a mind that actors as talented as Robert De Niro and Edward Norton could make even pedestrian material watchable, Stone puts your theory to the test. And surprise! They can.
Mr. De Niro fails to make anything about his miserable character poignant, and Mr. Norton's overwrought intensity borders on hysteria. The desired moral dilemma never arrives.
Though nearly sabotaged by the ridiculous sexual subplot at its center, this soul-searching drama works best at the character level, couching insights about sin and forgiveness under the guise of conventional genre entertainment.
It's a tour de force for Norton, who fills the air with an intense and yet thoughtful patter about why Stone is in the joint, what he did, what he doesn't want to think about/talk about any more and what he thinks Jack Mabry wants to hear.
The movie wouldn't work as well as it does without the impressive support they get from the film's leading ladies, Frances Conroy and Milla Jovovich, who act as catalysts for the explosive drama.