Stone may be the guy behind bars but it is Mabry, the filmmakers strongly suggest, who is in emotional lockdown. For years he and his wife, Madylyn (Frances Conroy), have been in a stalemate, bound together by duty and God but not by love.
Contrast the Mabrys to Stone and his spouse, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), temptation with blue eyes. Although apart during his prison term, they are bound by a lust that, for one of them at least, might be spiritual love. When Stone perceives that ironbound Mabry isn't buying his professions of penitence, he dispatches Lucetta to melt the parole officer's moral armor.
Set to an edgy score played on what sounds like a zither tricked out with blades instead of strings, the film walks on razor's edge. Sound is important because Stone, godless convict, has read in a religious pamphlet that the spirit makes itself audible to the nonbeliever.
In a performance that recalls his startling debut as the altar boy accused of murder in Primal Fear, Norton is snaky and ambiguous. He is well-matched with De Niro, his costar in The Score, who brings a jeroboam of bottled rage (and his A game) to this face-off. In their supporting roles, Jovovich is irrepressibly sexy while Conroy haunts the film as a ghost of resignation.
I was with the movie until its head-scratcher of an ending, too oblique for its own good. Still, in the days since I saw it, I've thought a lot about the players in this zero-sum game.
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or email@example.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly. com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/