“She’s a alien,” says Stone (Edward Norton), “A alien from another world.” He hardly seems to be joking as he describes his wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich, who was, after all, the Fifth Element). She’s a “freak” and a “perfect 10,” too, and thinking about her helps Stone get through his days in prison. Or so he tells his new caseworker, Jack (Robert De Niro). He’s been married nine years, he adds, “eight of ‘em in this shit.” And Lucetta’s stuck by him, freak that she is.
In the flesh, Lucetta bears out Stone’s evaluation. She slinks into the visiting area wearing a thin dress, on a first name basis with the guards because she’s been slinking in like this for so many years. She seems unable to keep her hands off her husband and inclined to put his hand inside her as they sit together, though both know this is not allowed. She agrees to call Jack—at home, and repeatedly—to convince him to “help” her husband. Her cell phone is pink.
Lucetta’s affect, a little country, a lot modeled on trashy-pop girls, makes her simultaneously “alien” and utterly familiar. Stone talks her up, makes her seem mysterious and a little dangerous, during his meetings with Jack: “How long you get to keep judging a person for one bad thing they did?” asks Stone, his hair braided and his accent vaguely Southern. Jack demurs, insisting, “We’re not talking about me, we’re talking about you,” but they’re always talking about both of them, men in fear of losing what they don’t quite have. In session and after session, Stone spews about his “bad childhood” and his wife (“I miss her suck me till I go crazy”) while Jack tries not to hear him.
When Stone asks Jack, “Why do you get to walk around free and I don’t?” the question frames a comparison between the evils they’ve both committed. Each does his best to control the terms of their relationship (“We talk, we’re not friends,” insists Jack at the start), but their game-playing is painfully obvious. Only a man like Jack, repressed and inflexible, close to retirement (Stone’s his last case), and miserable at home, would come close to falling for Stone’s seduction. Jack drives to work listening to the talk radio, ranging from charges the government stimulus has failed Detroit to evangelical rants. These brief snatches in the car tell you pretty much what you need to know about Jack, but the film tells you something else: at its start, a younger Jack, watching golf on TV, learns that his wife, Madylyn, wants to leave him (“You keep my soul in a dungeon,” she announces). His chilling response breaks her—or so you suppose, as she shows up old (as Frances Conroy), damaged, drunk, and dedicated to her cigarettes and Bible verses.
As Jack and Stone discuss the parameters of free will, guilt and innocence, remorse and vengeance, their women hover. Of course, Lucetta is more sensational, an effect augmented by brief glimpses of her heartless booty calls or eating hard-boiled eggs in dire close-up (when jack insists she meet him like other family members meet him, in his office, she breathes, “I’m not that great at offices”). But Madylyn is only her flipside, as extreme in her way, as desperate, resourceless, and uninspired. Religious fundamentalism and white wine together provide a meager, momentary escape from a world managed by men, specifically, by Jack.
The connection between Madylyn and Lucetta is made clear right away: Madylyn picks up the phone when Lucetta calls, frowns and informs her husband. She knows and doesn’t know where this is going, a tension within her the film acknowledges in passing, relentlessly focused as it is on the men’s competition and drama, acted out through Lucetta’s body more or less literally (“I’m all into the body, you know,” she assures Jack). You see that body a lot, in various states of dress and undress, writhing, soliciting, and demanding. The men seem rather at a loss as to how to deal with it, sometimes at the alien’s mercy and sometimes so horrified by her otherness that they turn to each other to confirm what they’ve seen and how they’ve comprehended it. Lucetta is dangerous, they agree, even if they can’t agree who owes what to whom, who’s guilty or responsible, and who’s actually losing himself in this process.
Stone’s part of the process occurs in prison, where he’s alone, where Jack doesn’t see him, where he seeks enlightenment through a particular sort of religion where he can become “God’s tuning fork.” A brochure in the prison library sets him on his way, and soon he’s meditating in the yard while his fellow inmates pump iron and play basketball. His seeming epiphany comes as he witnesses a guard’s murder: as the man’s life seeps from him, Stone’s eyes go wide and the sound drops out of the scene, save for his experience as a tuning fork. Now, at last, he sees and hears truth. On her next visit, Lucetta’s confused (“Stop playing!”), and for a moment, the film suggests that she might have an existence beyond the men’s plot.
But no. Lucetta remains a vehicle for Stone’s manipulations and Jack’s perfidies and inanities, opaque beyond their perception (which is, more or less, yours). Madylyn’s eventual step outside Jack’s house is at once foregone and futile. After spending 40 years inside her prison (her “dungeon”), she can’t even imagine what it’s like to “walk around free.”