He leaped into stardom just 14 years ago as a choirboy accused of murder in the tricky thriller "Primal Fear." But he set the tone of his career with 1999's "Fight Club," in which alienated Gen Xers got in touch with their inner primates via bare-knuckled scraps.
"Stone," the new Norton film that opens Friday, could have been called "Primal Angst."
Norton plays the title role, combining the shape-changing virtuosity that made him stand out in "Primal Fear" and the hunger for transcendence that underlay his fisticuffs in "Fight Club." A corn-rowed convict with a seductive line of backwater jive, Stone will do anything to get out of prison. That includes using his sexy grade-school teacher wife ( Milla Jovovich) to manipulate his reticent big-house case-worker ( Robert De Niro).
The plot sounds like rote pulp fiction about a ruthless couple who put the squeeze on an uptight official in more ways than one. But Norton's elusive jailbird is disarmingly complex.
"I think that Stone, in the beginning, is defined not so much by evil but by anxiety," Norton said over the phone last week. "He's anguished with fear at the prospect of not being released. He wants so desperately to know what he needs to do to get out."
Norton's fast-talking arsonist is scarily observant, freakily open to spiritual and aesthetic revelations, and often brutally frank, especially about the woman he calls an "alien" — his wife. Stone realizes that he must know himself and his position in the universe even if he's stuck behind bars.
He's the opposite of De Niro's burned-out bureaucrat, who can't find love in his marriage or spiritual comfort in his church and has bottled-up his violent emotions all his life.
Norton said that the film emerged from his desire to work with John Curran, who previously directed him in "The Painted Veil," a story about the difficulty of marriage that was also about, in Norton's words, "the arrogance of Western rationality."
"I pulled him into 'The Painted Veil,'" Norton said, "But he pulled me into this one. It took a while."
Curran saw potential in the script that Norton and De Niro couldn't fathom.
"Both to me and to De Niro he kept explaining how he wanted to make it more than a noirish kind of prison film. He wanted to go after deeper themes: how people change and redeem themselves; what constitutes a real spiritual experience; what are the consequences of living behind the artifice of marriage and church if you're not authentically feeling it."
As Norton grasped Curran's vision, he said, he "began to feel that in many ways John was catching people's fear and frustration in the wake of the economic collapse. He was capturing the sensation people feel when what they see as stable is suddenly unstable. I think that permeates the film."
Norton stays tuned to the Zeitgeist, but he balks at tackling topical issues head-on. He'd rather go at them sideways, as in "Stone" and " Pride and Glory," a New York City cop movie about police venality that's also about "the institutional lying" that swept through America at the time of Abu Ghraib.
Norton doesn't make message movies. "That implies you're imposing a point of view on an audience. I don't think that leaves the audience any room to do any thinking for themselves."
As Stone, for example, he must depict a mystical transformation after witnessing a terrible atrocity. A viewer has to wonder whether this spiritual change will really alter Stone's ethics and behavior.
But Norton, as an actor, knew exactly how he wanted to play it. "To me, the shift he makes is from agitation toward calm. It's a shift toward a kind of peaceful acceptance of his need to grapple with who he is no matter where he is."
That change is the opposite of calming for the audience.
"It's challenging," Norton said. "People are scared of ambiguity when you talk to them about it. But it's often ambiguity that allows audiences to participate. It allows them to see the movie through the lens of their own experience. It enables them to argue about meaning and think a little more actively."
Norton had already acted with De Niro in Frank Oz's caper film, "The Score." But acting with De Niro in this film was a bit of poetic justice.
"Definitely, the films that most affected me would fit this category, going back to De Niro's old movies, from 'Taxi Driver' to 'King of Comedy.' Those are very ambiguous films. They unsettle you and they don't resolve things for you," he said. "When my own films have had that kind of impact, like 'Fight Club' or 'American History X' or 'The 25th Hour,' it's because the filmmakers were very comfortable leaving audiences with a lot of questions in their heads."
Norton knows that it's more difficult to find backing for these films, because the men and women who put up money for them "are afraid people won't understand them. But I think, paradoxically, it's what makes people actually feel more of a participatory relationship with the film. They think harder about it and want to see the movie again. They form a deeper relationship to it. When you make absolutely sure that every single minutia of the point you're trying to make is clear, all you're doing is letting people go to dinner and talk about something else. You're not really respecting your audience much."
For a happy example of a man who had "a successful commercial career" but also respected his customers, Norton can look to his maternal grandfather, James Rouse, who created the planned community, Columbia, where Norton grew up.
"Even his business was an opportunity to serve, and he was exuberantly engaged in the life of his city and his country. The great thing is that he wasn't in any way the kind of guy who had this saintly feeling about him. You got the sense that he was just having fun all the time. He wore Madras jackets and yellow pants and fishing hats all his life; I don't think he ever wore a suit. He was one of the least serious serious people that I've ever met."
Norton, for all his seriousness, has a playful, adventurous spirit of his own. Consider the pet projects he's been nurturing for years: a film adaptation of Jonathan Lethem's "Motherless Brooklyn," about a detective with Tourette's syndrome; and "Undaunted Courage," an HBO miniseries based on Stephen Ambrose's book about Lewis and Clark's voyage of discovery. (He promises both will happen, though he doesn't know exactly when.)
Norton said that he feels lucky to have learned from Rouse "that engaging with your community doesn't have to be seen as a duty. It can be seen as a source of joy and an expansion of your life."