Time is running out for Monty Brogan – in 24 hours he will have to give himself up to serve a seven-year prison sentence for drug dealing. Monty was something of a big-shot in Manhattan but now it’s time for him to bid farewell to the bright lights for a while. Monty had been working for Russian dealers until one day the cops darkened his door,knowing exactly where to find the stash – in the couch. Monty decides to spend his last day in freedom visiting his nearest and
dearest, including his father, who runs an Irish pub and whom Monty has being supporting financially,and two old friends he has known since child-hood. Frank works as an investment banker on Wall Street whilst Jacob teaches literature at a high school. Monty’s two friends commiserate with their buddy during his last evening in freedom. Jacob declares confidently that“I’ll see him again”, but Frank is more pragmatic and understands that a seven-year stint in prison will change Montgomery for ever. “He’s gone”, he states flatly. Monty’s girlfriend, Naturelle, is also with them this night. However, Monty has his doubts about her loyalty – she just may have been the one to sell him out to the cops – and he’s determined to find out before his impending incarceration…
25th Hour is also a film about present-day New York. As Spike Lee comments: “People ask me what 25th hour is about, and I say, ‘Edward Norton plays a drug dealer who spends his last 24 hours of freedom in a post-September 11 New York City. Even though the novel and the screenplay were written before 9/11, we knew it had to be included in the film.We felt that we would be irresponsible artists if we shot this film in New York City and people were walking around like 9/11 never happened.” –Berlinale
25th Hour (2002)
FILM REVIEW; Confronting the Past Before Going to Prison
Spike Lee’s ”25th Hour” begins with an aerial tour of Manhattan at night, set to the gilded sob of Terence Blanchard’s lush, urbane orchestral jazz. It may not be the most original way to start a movie, but this visual and sonic overture, created by Mr. Lee with the help of Mr. Blanchard and the cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, has an unexpected emotional impact.
This particular skyline is dominated by the twin columns of light that illuminated downtown as a tribute to those who died in the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001. Watching the beams fade into the dawn on screen stirred up some half-buried sorrows, which I found a little jarring. The New York of the movies has always been an exaggerated, even fantastical version of the real place, and this division has seemed especially acute in the past year. Even in newer movies, the cinematic city has frequently offered a backward or sidelong escape from the post-9/11 real thing.
One of the first American movies explicitly set in New York after 9/11, ”25th Hour” is based on a novel by David Benioff (who also wrote the screenplay) that was published well before the attacks. In any case, their aftermath is not so much the topic of Mr. Lee’s movie as an important element of its atmosphere, at times an obtrusive one. In one scene, two characters talk in an apartment overlooking ground zero, whose floodlighted glare and somber activity make it impossible to concentrate on the dialogue: a case of reality overwhelming fiction.
For the most part, though, Mr. Lee approaches the overwhelming reality with sensitivity and tact. His model, unlikely as it may seem, could be ”The Rising” (Sony), the Bruce Springsteen album that supplies a song for the closing credits. An ambience of stunned grief and a slightly giddy, slightly guilty feeling of survival float through the film, which chronicles a midlevel drug dealer’s last day of freedom before the start of a seven-year prison sentence: a situation that could easily be the raw material for one of Mr. Springsteen’s hard-luck ballads.
Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) is the son of a retired firefighter (Brian Cox) who tends bar for his old comrades on Staten Island. The father’s patrons are played by real-life members of the fire department’s Rescue 5, and his establishment has become, like so many blue-collar spots in the city, a shrine to the fallen and a meeting place for the bereaved.
Monty’s woes are more particular. In his last hours of freedom he needs to tie up some loose ends, both practical and emotional. His dog, which he had found beaten and left for dead near the East River, will need a home. Monty also needs to say goodbye to his father and his two boyhood friends, to settle accounts with the Russian mobsters he works for and to find out if his girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), was the one who ratted him out to the feds.
All of this could have unfolded with the lumbering, schematic rhythms of a second-rate play, but Mr. Benioff’s script is supple and easygoing, and Mr. Lee’s direction has a relaxed, assured intensity perfectly complemented by the somber swing of Mr. Blanchard’s score. Monty is in no hurry to get to the penitentiary, and the filmmakers are not inclined to rush him. Mr. Lee gives the actors plenty of time and room to work, and their work is terrific. Mr. Norton, speedy and graceful, can talk a mile a minute while keeping his deeper feelings in check; he can, within a single scene, be almost sociopathicly controlled and terribly, childishly vulnerable. Monty is all of these things: an outlaw big shot and a messed-up kid; a dutiful son and a drug pusher who sweet-talks schoolgirls on the playground; a cocksure tough guy and a terrified pipsqueak.
Monty’s best friends are Francis (Barry Pepper), an arrogant investment banker, and Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a high school teacher with a stricken, shamefaced crush on one of his students (Anna Paquin). Mr. Pepper (who played Roger Maris in Billy Crystal’s HBO baseball movie ”61*”) has a wolfish grin and wide cheekbones that suggest a younger Christopher Walken. He and Mr. Hoffman, so anxious and sexually confused as to be almost inarticulate, are like a ”Sex and the City” vision of hell. If all the bachelors in New York were lizardy braggarts like Francis or tongue-tied shlubs like Jacob, Carrie and her crew would have long ago decamped for Pittsburgh and joined the cast of ”Queer as Folk.” Next to his pals, Monty the heroin dealer looks like a good catch.
The problem, though, is that while the lifelong friendship of these disparate examples of white Manhattan manhood is an enticing conceit, it never feels like much more. The relationship of the three men is both the movie’s dramatic center and its narrative weak spot. They seem not so much grounded in a social reality as inserted into one, and the psychology of their rivalries and affections is often blurred, especially as the picture moves toward its brutal climax. (In spite of fine performances from Ms. Dawson and Ms. Paquin, the women, perhaps inevitably, drift toward the margins of the story.)
The details of Monty’s fall from working-class striver to criminal are never filled in. We know he was kicked out of private school for selling marijuana, but half his life has gone by since, and we never see how he was able to sustain his ties to family and friends while pursuing his unfortunate career.
But if ”25th Hour” does not quite work as a plausible and coherent story, it produces a wrenching, dazzling succession of moods. Mr. Lee exercises his prodigious visual talents with unusual restraint, and keeps some of his more confrontational urges in check. Because the movie is so measured, so melodic, its bursts of wild invention, which might otherwise be irritating, are electrifying. The ending, narrated by Mr. Cox, is as bittersweet and sincere an evocation of the American dream as I have seen on film in quite some time, acknowledging both the futility of the collective national fantasy and its consoling, resilient power.
Almost as touching is a moment when Monty, staring into a men’s room mirror, launches into a profane tirade against his fellow New Yorkers (and everyone else). His rage is impressively ecumenical, encompassing blacks, brutal police officers, gays, Osama bin Laden, the rich, the poor and every other ethnic or social type you can think of: all of them put down with ruthless, scabrous precision. The rant recalls a famous sequence in ”Do the Right Thing” and also Eminem’s more recent invocation, in ”White America,” of ”so much anger aimed/in no particular direction just sprays and sprays.”
But like Eminem’s rhymes, Monty’s outburst, and the montage that accompanies it, contain tenderness as well as hate. Mr. Lee, an irreplaceable New York filmmaker, understands better than most that the true New Yorker’s deep, exasperated and unquenchable love for his city is sometimes best expressed in the language of rage.
”Twenty-fifth Hour” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has violence, sexual references, profanity and drug use.