Dir. John Curran
In an unspecified time during the ’60s, a housewife in a rural home somewhere outside Detroit puts her young daughter down for a nap and stares at a buzzing bee trapped behind a window screen. Eventually, of course, the trapped insect inspires her to attempt to leave her husband — whom, she claims, traps her soul in a “dungeon” — and leads to the husband grabbing their daughter and threatening to throw her out the second story window if his wife goes through with leaving him. After she quickly demurs, he puts the still sleeping girl back on the bed and slams the window shut, bisecting the bee. The scene offers up the good and bad of the film in microcosm: Well-paced and earnest, director John Curran’s moody double portrait still falls pray to overproduction and symbolic blatancy.
As the film begins, the couple, Jack (Robert DeNiro) and Madlyn (Frances Conroy), have grown old together, seemingly accepting their entwined fate. Jack works as a high-level probation director at one of the local prisons, listening to Christian talk radio on either commute, and buying giant bottles of whiskey to take home with him. On the job, he meets Stone (Edward Norton, initially channeling his inner Eminem), a cornrowed hothead who is up for probation after an eight year stint for being involved with a robbery-gone-wrong that ended in his grandparents’ murder. Stone’s stunning wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich) attempts to seduce Jack in order to ensure her husband’s freedom. At first rebuffing her obvious ploys, Jack eventually caves in to his ego and allows a relationship to brew between them. Stone, meanwhile, suddenly (and it must be said, nonsensically) transforms into a sort of metaphysical philosopher. He reasons that everything that happens was meant to happen, an idea which seems to offer him solace and peace. His newfound tranquility drives Jack, unable to attain anything beyond the four tight walls of his very controlled and self-loathing existence, into further distraction and fury.
The film posits both men as seeking a kind of spiritual absolution, their taut office conversations are meant to pave the way for their eventual transformations, but too often Curran and screenwriter Angus MacLachlan rely on gooey psychology and dubious religious metaphor (let’s just say that sinful eggs, buzzing bees and purging fire factor greatly in the proceedings) to render the characters’ plight. There is a fine line, indeed, between studied and ponderous. So little actually happens on screen, it relies on its imagery — albeit skillfully rendered by DP Maryse Alberti — to do most of the heavy lifting, which leaves for a less than satisfying tableau. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the leads — Jovovich, for one, has never been more captivating — nor with the essential concept of two men facing the prongs of their fates in entirely different ways, but in its execution, it would appear Curran has left entirely too little to chance.