Between the lines of aural montages of religious and political talk radio conversations, and the characters’ own insistence on examining their lives in spiritual terms, is the uncomplicated truth of the story. The tale of manipulators manipulating and being manipulated is the movie’s cold, candid core, but Stone’s imagined grander, more philosophical aims diminish the narrative the characters in the midst of their sad, adrift lives are telling.

Angus MacLachlan’s screenplay is obsessed with Truth of the capital-T variety — an awareness of purpose, believing in something greater than oneself. It is a lofty goal, to be sure, and ambition gets the better of the movie, especially since the characters hardly understand their own motivations and definitely keep what they are aware of from others.

A prologue sets the stage. A younger Jack (Enver Gjokaj) and Madylyn (Pepper Binkley) are in the midst of marriage. She is leaving him, Madylyn tells Jack, and he storms upstairs, threatens to throw their daughter out the window, and demands she stays. She does, and they sit outside, watching their little girl play as though nothing has happened.

Decades later, an older Jack (Robert De Niro) is weeks away from retiring from a career on the parole board at a penitentiary. His final caseload includes Stone (Edward Norton), in jail for participating in the robbery and arson of his grandparents’ home with a cousin, who killed the grandparents in between the other two crimes. Stone was convicted of the less damning crimes and is now eligible for parole.

The back-and-forth of dialogue between Jack and Stone are the foundation of the script’s observations. Stone starts an angry skeptic, convinced Jack’s only role is to keep him locked up, and changes his behavior after and during each of their conversations, eventually becoming a man at peace with the world and who he is. Jack has heard all of the language before — a montage of inmates saying the usual (they’re sorry, they’ve changed, they’ve found religion) proves that.

This is his role in life; it was what he does to “live right,” which, he states in a eulogy for his brother early on, is the best anyone could want. Madylyn (Frances Conroy) has religion, reading a passage from the Bible before dinner every night, and sitting on the porch with her husband — she smoking a cigarette while he ignores her for talk radio.

He is in control, because he maintains control. His end desire is the most complicated and yet straightforward of the trio of manipulators. Stone has the most obvious motivation. He wants out of jail, making his rebirth questionable from the moment it is suggested. When Jack asks what being reborn means to Stone, the inmate heads to the religion section of the prison library. Norton’s dead eyes in between speaking only adds to the question of the legitimacy of deception of his transformation. Plus, he clearly sets his wife Lucetta (Milla Jovovich) upon Jack to seduce him toward a favorable report. Lucetta loves the game of control, without rules or judgment.

The movie works until it becomes bogged down in attaining the same sort of enlightenment Stone claims to have found. Stone’s words of becoming a tuning fork for God echo in the soundtrack, and the character study during the beginning acts of Stone turns into a vague quest for redemption.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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