Directed by John Curran

Opens Oct. 22.

Edward Norton works diligently

and with great purpose to be a real actor in movies. He is serious about his craft and stuff. He doesn’t do fun “popcorn” movies (the



was awfully quiet for a comic book flick, and it’s not his fault knuckleheads like

Fight Club

), and even though he’s stuck a feeler out and taken shots at stuff like that movie where he was a priest in a love triangle with Ben Stiller (or something) and the super underrated and odd

Death to Smoochy

, he’s always coming back to being the guy who seems to be doing some sort of College Grad actor-y shit ever since he was unknown and got all the love way back when from critics for playing a psycho-creepy murder suspect. He seems like a really good guy in real life, if you can actually figure that out from watching somebody never being himself (you can’t), and many of his movies feel like they are hand-wrought outta wood and iron by people wearing North Face clothing while everybody else out there is making theirs from aluminum and plastic and pixels, and he likes it that way.

So now he’s playing a guy named Stone, nobody special, just another titular convict trying to get paroled, and Robert De Niro is Jack Mabry, a total fucking depressive drag of a man who lives in some sorta weird soul-numbing purgatory with his long-suffering and completely damaged wife Madylyn (the always excellent and actor-y Frances Conroy). Mabry is a guy who sits behind a desk at the prison and does the interviews and paperwork involved in deciding the fate of prospective parolees, who all talk about how they have changed and are well on the way to being rehabilitated—except Stone, who is if not exactly amoral then mostly just a pragmatist, but with conviction (the other kind), and so he’s not exactly cheesin’ and grinnin’ for The Man, he’s getting downright philosophical, and that’s no way to sell your Prison Rehabilitation Story. So while he’s busy being real, Stone deploys Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), his sex bomb wife, to help his case with the authorities, and really, don’t worry about spoilers here because you’re gonna see where all this is going. You’re going to understand the thread running through the story, you’re going to buy into the strategic use of sound and the narcotizing, enervating atmospheric music on the soundtrack, you’re going to be depressed by the bleak settings, but ultimately this movie is not so much about being a movie, even though all the pieces are there, it’s really all about the acting, the performances by the four stars here, more than the well-telegraphed and deliberate tricks of the story.

Jovovich labors mightily to deliver a twitchy and disturbing turn as Mrs. Convict, and it’s hard to look her in the eye while she eye-fucks her targets and experiences emotions. She is Bad News, and it’s embarrassing watching her work, acting and acting. This could be argued as being anywhere on the spectrum from a shitty, hammy performance to an excellent one, on a visceral level. It’s both, of course. Conroy’s Madylyn will make you want to reach inside the screen and grab her and her highball and her Bible the hell out of there, and her glassy-eyed moments are just plain sad.

Meanwhile, even though he’s got a permanent pass to a revolving door Through the Looking Glass and back, self-parodywise, Robert De Niro displays difficulty at not being Robert De Niro, with that gummy grimace he does that everybody makes fun of—you are probably doing it right now, bobbing your head—but he’s fucking Robert De Niro, so it’s OK, and it’s probably just because we’ve seen an awful lot of Robert De Niro. Maybe too much, yeah, but we’ll always give him another chance until he shows up on the

Island of Dr. Moreau

, and even then it’ll probably be compelling, but the other thing is, this time it might just be the limitations of this character as a human being. This guy is so limited and unenlightened and closed up. If you play an uninteresting non-entertaining character well, what’s the payoff? Anyway, Norton does a fine job and works well against De Niro’s awkward pencil-pusher, and as Stone he plays with the importance of sound in this movie, tweaking his voice into a completely artificial delivery (for him), a lilting, annoying, direct, sometimes confident and menacing voice, which beyond hair and makeup transforms him into a focused, motivated man who just wants to get out of jail, free.