Time Out says
A quick-talking convict (Norton) up for parole is willing to do anything to get his strict case officer (De Niro) to let him out---including faux-finding religion and using his comely wife (Jovovich) to seduce the sad-sack authority figure. Surely we've already seen this movie, right? But John Curran (The Painted Veil) lets viewers know early on that he could give a toss about making a typical who's-conning-who thriller; all ye searching for Primal Fear redux, abandon hope. The character-driven drama he offers viewers instead is something far more complex, cracked and unique for an American movie boasting big-name stars: an unblinking glare into the abyss.
Neither Stone's ambient white-noise soundtrack (courtesy of Jon Brion and Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, both uncredited) nor Norton's rusty-door Detroit accent can drown out the keening pitch of the movie's central irony---why does one "bad" man have a genuine epiphany, while a "good" one goes into a moral free fall? The seesaw effect of the characters' clarity and confusion helps Curran & Co.'s unexpected, occasionally heavy-handed fumblings toward examining spiritual emptiness find purchase. That the film often cuts bone-deep, however, can be almost single-handedly credited to one actor.
Robert De Niro is synonymous with Method-actor-as-rock-star performances, yet there's little showboating in the way he plays this remote everyman---only numbness, inarticulacy, and a desperate grasping for answers that feels both raw and frighteningly real. It's easily the best work he's done in a decade, a triumph not of acting but of real, honest-to-God acting; you not only forget you're watching an icon, you feel as if you're truly witnessing someone burdened with decades of emotional baggage psychically crumble before your eyes.