By Scott Martin
25th Hour, USA, 2002
Directed by Spike Lee
I’ll be the first to say that I am not a Spike Lee fan. Outside of a few films, I think the man refuses to see past his skin color and the world in anything other than black versus white, but in 25th Hour, the story of a white drug dealer’s last day before seven years in federal prison, Lee pushes aside his normal agenda and shows us shades of gray that he’s ignored for the majority of his career. It harks back to his breakthrough film Do the Right Thing (1989), in that it asks its viewer a very important question: what do we do now? In what might be the first mainstream film to openly deal with a post-9/11 New York, complete with long shots of Ground Zero and open allusions to the late firemen who dealt with the evacuation and clean-up of the fallen Twin Towers, he reverses his stance and puts it, literally, in another color.
Edward Norton is a powerful actor, without ever doing too much; he lives in the simple parts of his characters and portrays very basic human emotions, but does so with such a natural swagger that you can completely forget you’re watching an actor. His Monty Brogan is the best example of this alternative approach. Here we see a drug dealer get touched and spend his last day of freedom with him. The city has changed, and so has Monty; the lifestyle is gone, and of all the filmmakers to propose a love letter to New York after her fall (we’re still waiting, Woody), in retrospect, Lee should have been the obvious choice. With his extremely candid points of view and the temper he gives all of his projects, it was the right move at the right time. I heard someone refer to the film as a bandage for the city’s wounds and I was insulted, as the point of a bandage is to cover up the wound. Lee’s film is a part of the healing process, for sure, but he never attempts to cover anything up, and literally tells it exactly like it is.
The now famous internal monologue of “f**ks” has to be one of the great screenwriting gifts of this decade. Monty looks into a bathroom mirror in a bar after an awkward lunch with his father and lashes out, practically breathing toxins at the city’s inhabitants. Racist, absolutely, but that doesn’t make the emotions any less true. There isn’t a person alive who hasn’t lost their temper and said vile things, and there isn’t a person alive who hasn’t bottled up so much that when their temper is lost, it’s like a dam breaking. Everything just pours out. In ten minutes, Spike Lee succeeded in doing what Crash (2004) took two hours to do.
The film opens with a flashback in which Monty and one of his thugs stumble upon a beaten dog and decide to save it. As the film moves on, the opening scene becomes extremely indicative of just the kind of person that Monty really is. Regardless of how he may appear, he does the best he can for those who need it. The dog is his now, and has a better life because of him. He spends his last day with his best friends and his girlfriend. Barry Pepper and Philip Seymour Hoffman play his buddies, his oldest friends from a life he hasn’t been living much in the present. Pepper is Frank Slaughtery, a greedy Wall Street broker (one of the film’s many allusions to Enron), and Hoffman is Jacob Elinsky, a high school teacher with a thing for one of his underage students. Rosario Dawson, brilliant as always, plays Monty’s girlfriend, Naturelle, who may or may not have turned him in. The only weak link in the entire film is Anna Paquin, who’s supposed to play the sexy high school student, Mary.
The entire story is perfectly laid out before us. There isn’t an actual plot, and nothing is really going on, but if we stick around, we get to see the truth about these four people. During Monty’s going away party, there is a DJ present whom everyone refers to as “Truth” (DJ Cipha Sounds). During the sequence, whenever anyone seriously mentions Monty’s prison days, it’s in blue lighting, and from the second we step into the club, every character is barebones and how they really are when no one is looking. We see glimpses of Frank and Jacob’s relationship through flashback scenes showing a couple of guys that really hate one another, but love each other in spite of it, but with Truth in the background, none of that matters. Each character goes on a separate journey in the club and their stories are neatly wrapped up. The only thread left open is Monty’s unresolved fear of life and possible assault while in prison.
Lee’s use of the film’s overbearing score by Terence Blanchard saves it from being a detractor; he places the heaviest parts over the simplest of shots, and the softest parts over very heavy dramatic material. In effect, it builds an odd and uneasy tension that, again, completely reflects the uneasiness of the city at that time. It’s a brilliant choice from the director and, as such, the score is one of the best of its year. The screenplay by David Benioff, based on his novel, moves like clockwork at a very calm pace; it’ll get there when it gets there. Like I said, there isn’t much of a story, but that doesn’t mean what’s going on isn’t important. The performances are all great, especially Norton’s, but from the supporting cast, the actor who really sticks out is Brian Cox as Monty’s father, James. He admits that he hasn’t been there for Monty very much, and he wants to drive him to prison so he can be with his boy when he needs him the most. On the way, he talks to Monty about his options, and that it’s as easy as taking a left to keep Monty free and give him a new life.
The film acts not only as a love letter to a healing New York City, but as a pointing finger to the rest of the world. Lee tells us to hold onto that anger, because that’s the truest emotion we have right now. We’re supposed to be angry, and there is going to be a lot of hate, regardless of whether or not anybody says it out loud. It’s what we do with the hate that matters. The film’s characters all, in some form, benefit off of the misery of other people, and Lee challenges his viewers to come to terms with that and to live in a different way, so we might avoid the destructive path on which his all too lifelike characters live. It’s fantastic work from a director I don’t really care for, but it’s a film I can watch over and over again and always learn something new.
Contact the author: ScottMartin@MoviesIDidntGet.com