December 19, 2002 | Early in 25th Hour , Spike
Lee's furiously melancholy drama about life and dread in post-9/11 New
York City, there's a scene so brilliantly sustained, so casually extraordinary,
that it almost takes your breath away.
The setting is a luxury apartment overlooking Ground Zero, where the
Twin Towers used to stand. In front of a window that offers a painfully
vivid view of night-shift workers clearing debris, two friends discuss
the short-term anxieties and long-term prospects of a former high school
classmate. The mood is grim, and the words are blunt.
Monty (Edward Norton), their recklessly
feckless buddy, must enter prison the very next day, to begin a seven-year
sentence for drug dealing. There's no doubt that Monty is guilty as
charged they know it, he knows it
and, thanks to a couple of pitiless flashbacks, we know it.
Even so, Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a high school teacher who's
uncomfortably attracted to one of his sexier female students, wants to
cut Monty some slack. He makes excuses for their friend, and hopes for
the poor guy's rehabilitation. But Slaughtery (Barry Pepper), an intense,
risk-addicted Wall Street warrior, will have none of that. In Slaughtery's
view, Monty is a good friend who did very bad things, and fully deserves
to be behind bars. Sure, Slaughtery is willing to go along for the barhopping
while Monty celebrates his last night of freedom. But he's certain that
Monty will either take flight before reporting to prison, or commit suicide.
Or, worse, go to prison and never make it out alive.
The conversation unfolds throughout a single,
continuous shot, with Jacob and Slaughtery framed in front of the window.
Eventually, they walk out of the frame, but the shot is held a bit
longer, as the faceless workers outside continue their chores. Don't
misunderstand: Lee isn't trying to forge a direct connection between
the fate of a convicted drug dealer and the aftermath of an epochal
terrorist attack. Instead, he's merely implying cunningly, dispassionately that
the knowledge of that attack, and the paranoia it inspired, still hangs
heavy in the air like a poisonous gas, subtly (and, sometimes, not-so-subtly)
influencing and affecting people as they go about their blinkered,
David Benioff wrote 25 th Hour (both the original novel and
the subsequent screenplay adaptation) long before the 9/11 cataclysm.
But Lee, a famously scrappy and frankly chauvinistic New Yorker, has
chosen to enhance and expand the compelling storyline by repeatedly acknowledging
the tragedy, and by noting its collateral damage. James (Brian Cox),
Monty's father, is an ex-firefighter who operates a neighborhood bar
frequented by former co-workers. When Monty goes to see his dad, to reestablish
some kind of connection during Monty's final hours of freedom, they can't
help talking about the longtime customers who went into the Twin Tours
on 9/11, and didn't come out.
Here and elsewhere in 25 th Hour ,
Edward Norton's powerhouse performance is a roiling, riveting fusion
of rage and regret, fear and desire. Monty is smart enough to know
he has done dumb and self-destructive things, and brave enough to stick
by his decision against offering evidence against his partners in crime brutal Russian mobsters even
though that means serving a maximum prison sentence. (He knows that,
if he were to testify in return for leniency, the mobsters would kill
him or his father, or both.) For a long time, though, he wants to blame
everyone but himself. The character is deeply flawed and profoundly
frightened, but that makes him all the more fascinating.
Norton is especially impressive when it comes to tempering Lee's sporadic
excesses with a solid ring of rueful truth. When Monty stands alone in
the bathroom of his father's bar, facing the mirror and spewing a frenzied
flow of invectives against New Yorkers of every age, race and social
status, it's all too obviously a reprise of a similar montage/monologue
in Lee's Do the Right Thing (another film, not coincidentally,
that unfolds during a 24-hour period). But Norton makes the scene electrifyingly
fresh, crackling with alternating currents of enraged self-justification
and embittered self-loathing.
Lee animates much of 25 th Hour with
his trademark stylistic flourishes note how often characters appear to literally drift through
key scenes and uses skittish, tension-ratcheting editing to fuel conversations
and confrontations with a sense of mounting desperation.
On one level, the movie is a fairly straightforward yet dramatically
satisfying account of a man who's running out of time and options, who
puts on a bold show of self-possession while taking stock of his life.
There are elements of mystery, suspense and dark comedy in the teasing
questions Lee and Benioff raise: Did Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), Monty's
girlfriend, betray him to the cops? Will Mary (Anna Paquin), Jacob's
alluring student, play Lolita to his Humbert Humbert? Will Monty indeed
report to prison, or become a fugitive?
In the end, however, the most impressive thing about 25 th Hour is
the shrewd and skillful way Lee inextricably intertwines text and subtext,
catching all of his characters at a moment when their selfish concerns
are increasingly overshadowed whether they want to admit it or not
-- by events beyond their control. All of the supporting players are
splendid, but Brian Cox makes the most devastating impact, thanks to
a final monologue in which James yearns for an alternative to the worst-case
scenario that has cast his son as its star. He gets the final line This
life came so close to never happening! and its bittersweet irony resonates
in your head long after the closing credits roll past.