Stone: Ed Norton, Master of the Dual Role, Dances with Himself.

Movie stars make a living peddling distinct, definable personalities. Edward Norton, a movie star who might have enjoyed the comparative anonymity of a character actor if not for the gossip-media market value of a few of his habits (an aggressive perfectionism that has earned him a "reputation" for "being difficult," a penchant for dating tabloid-famous women), has built a career on the exploration of dual personalities, and the gray area in between them.

Norton famously landed his breakthrough role in Primal Fear by being the only actor auditioned who could convincingly play two people: shy, naive altar boy Aaron, and Aaron's violent alter ego, Roy. That bifurcated part set a template for Norton's career. He plays either clean-shaven, boyish idealists (as in his directorial debut, Keeping the Faith), or hard cases in wife-beaters glowering behind facial hair (American History X)—and even when primarily filling one role, he brings in at least an echo of the other extreme.

This binary dynamic is taken to new ends in John Curran's Stone, in which Norton stars alongside Robert De Niro. Norton's title character, a thirtysomething former drug addict heading into the back nine of a sentence for arson, is a charismatic schemer transformed into a different person after an unexpected spiritual conversion. The film twins Norton's criminal with De Niro's Jack, a corrections officer on the verge of retirement who has been hiding deep discontent and hostility under the cover of pious (if boozy) stasis. In a number of long one-on-one scenes, Norton and De Niro do a conversational dance around issues of spirituality and morality in which, increasingly, the criminal seems to function as the corrections officer's conscience.

"They almost start to swap states," Norton says, sitting in a dressing room at Los Angeles' KCET, where he's just taped The Tavis Smiley Show. "It's about one guy who seems extremely unstable becoming more and more stable, and one guy who seems stable becoming more and more unstable."

Desperate to game the corrections system, Stone conspires with his wife (Milla Jovovich) to put Jack in a compromising position. It seems like a basic film-noir triangle, but the filmmakers skirt the expected beats at almost every turn. Most bravely, Stone totally excludes the viewer from psychological exposition: No one in this movie is ever sure of what anyone else is really thinking or feeling.

"If you think it's oblique now...I didn't really understand it for about a year," Norton admits. "I couldn't get a bead on Stone. [Then] the economy tanked. I know it sounds like a weird thing, but it started resonating for me when [Curran] was saying, 'I want to make an economic-downturn film.' You know, that whole notion of lives built on structures of assumed validity—like marriages and church and the constructs that we use to define ourselves—suddenly evaporating and revealing a hollowness at the center that causes collapse. John was going after the moment in a way that was still murky, still elusive."

Perhaps this striving to use film as a sort of cultural reportage has something to do with why Norton has often been held up as some kind of exemplar of his peer group. Some of this is put on him by others, but a lot of it he steps into himself. In interviews over the years, Norton has frequently invoked the notion of generational responsibility. When Fight Club was released to polarizing response, he complained on the record about critics like The New Yorker's David Denby, who insisted that the David Fincher film glorified fascism, telling W, "It amazes me how baby boomers reject the art of my generation."

"I do sometimes think they should take away a critic's pass at about age 45," Norton, 41, says today. "I kind of think they've seen too many movies, and when they're writing about movies I see them interacting with their own erudition."

For most of our conversation he's been subdued, becoming much more animated when the topic turns to film criticism, and the state of "entertainment journalism"—a phrase he enunciates mockingly. He suspects that the entertainment media's process of instant and knee-jerk evaluation gets in the way of the audience's organic interaction with art.

"I don't think 'Guernica' is, like, intended to be an easy picture to look at," he says. "A lot of what you come to understand about that painting is in fact the inheritance of a couple of decades of people thinking about it. I've been through this experience a few times, where you begin to realize a deep conversation takes time to evolve between a thing and people. When you experience that, it's very freeing because you realize, what gets said 10 minutes after [a movie] comes out is not that relevant."

 
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