A hurdling drama that feels less like a film and more like an acting-class showdown, Stone features two undeniable acting powerhouses playing against type with impressive results. However, the fine thespian duel of De Niro versus Norton is not enough to distract from Stone’s glaring lack of central conflict or purpose.

Stone amounts to a string of confrontational scenes between a parole officer (De Niro) and a hillbilly inmate named Stone (Norton), where they both bark at each other relentlessly. It’s De Niro’s last days on the job, and more so than ever, he wants to be in control. Yet after a lifetime of being surrounded by sinners, De Niro seems to have lost the plot as well as his faith in the system.

What the film returns to again and again is the idea of atonement. Stone thinks that all God’s creatures are flawed, and that it is hypocrisy to expect them to honestly promise to live untainted by sin. He doesn’t want to give De Niro another speech; he wants to pull him into the simmering inner conflict that he himself is struggling with.

Much self-questioning and doubting ensue, and Stone strays away from the usual crime trajectory. It substitutes tangible twists and turns for internal dilemmas and a continuously building tension as the film goes along; but it never gets released. Stone also regurgitates far too much hokum at every opportunity, be it from the AM Radio that De Niro listens to on his way to work, or the book passages that Norton cites; thus overbearing the viewers.

Stone does bear a little surprise, though; and it comes in Milla Jovovich’s role as Norton’s wife. Jovovich has been quietly building a humble but admirable film career, and in Stone, she’s finally in control of her instruments and keeping up with, if not surpassing, these seasoned actors.

It’s a marvel to watch both De Niro and Norton challenging each other on screen. De Niro hasn’t been this memorable in a decade. While Stone won’t necessarily be remembered as one of his best performances; it’s the old, hungry De Niro that we see on screen, not the new one that showed up to cash the checks.