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Many films walk a thin line when it comes to propping up decidedly ‘bad’ guys as being opposite, with many popular movies guiding the audience toward more sympathy for the criminal than the law chasing them. Think of classics like Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Heat (1995), or any of a dozen others that reveal a troubled character mixed up in all the wrong things. With Spike Lee‘s 25th Hour, such is the case, with a not so straight and narrow drug dealer who is betrayed and now faces the consequences.
2002 was a very busy year of Edward Norton, who burst on the scene six years earlier with his highly-acclaimed performance as a young man convicted of murder in the Richard Gere thriller Primal Fear. A string of hits later and he has doing four movies in one year, with this very well-received drama that is as much about a city dealing with the aftermath of great tragedy as it is about a man crumbling under the weight of his past.
THE STORY: Monty Brogan (Norton) sits on a bench with a dog named Doyle he rescued a few years earlier. It is his last day of freedom before starting a seven year stint in prison for a drug bust that caught him red handed. In these final hours, he plans to meet childhood friends Frank Slaughtery (Barry Pepper) and Jacob Elinsky (Philip Seymour Hoffman) at a club with his girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) for a goodbye bash. We learn that Frank works on Wall Street and Jacob is a disillusioned writing teacher with a crippling crush on a 17-year-old girl (Anna Paquin) in his class.
Through a series of flashbacks, we discover how Monty got to where he is, with a p0lice raid as it house that looks like a betrayal, but by whom, is the mystery. Monty’s father James (Brian Cox), a former firefighter and recovering alcoholic, owns a bar, and has benefited from the money Monty earned from dealing, feeling remorseful for his son’s fate. Some say it was Naturelle who tipped the cops. Either way, in these last hours, Monty needs to get himself squared and get closure on the mistakes he’s made. All this in the shadow of the September 11th terror attacks that loom constantly in the background of the still jittery city.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Lee is one of if not the first to deal with the 9/11 attacks on film, bluntly, realistically but not centrally, keeping it in frame throughout but not as the motive for action. The presence of the missing towers is haunting, beams of memorable blue light shooting into the sky, and views into the chasms left behind in the cleanup. Even years later, it’s affecting.
Truly though, it is the performances all around that keep this so compelling, with Norton very good, though Hoffman especially is emotionally unsettling, his tortured craving for a girl half his age aching to watch. Watching him now, it too is painful knowing he’s gone, that never again can we be slack-jawed at a new performance.
A GREAT MOMENT: The movie earned some controversy over a scene featuring Monty in a men’s room talking to himself in a mirror, spouting a vitriolic ejecta of rage and hate for the city he lives in and the people who have come to define it, a diatribe of blame that he soon spins back on himself. It’s shocking and arresting, and absolutely Spike Lee.
But an even better moment is a car ride with James as he gives his son a chance to skip on jail and disappear. In a breathtaking imagining of what life would be like if they took a turn off the road and headed west, we watch Monty on a journey of freedom and redemption and farewell. It’s touching and even a bit misdirecting, and works with great effective. Cox is so underrated.
THE TALLY: 25th Hour isn’t Lee’s best work, nor Norton’s, but nonetheless remains a gripping story that is uncommon in its presentation, with Lee again giving New York it’s due. He loves the city and yet isn’t afraid to peel back some layers in exposing its fractured depths. There’s an honesty to his work here that feels as much like a tribute to the Burroughs and hi-rises, traffic, and cultures as it is an awakening for a man who took for granted the lie he was living, himself a metaphor for the town he resides. It’s what to watch.