Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Films of Spike Lee: 25th Hour (2002)

25th Hour (2002)
Directed by: Spike Lee.
Written by: David Benioff based on his novel.
Starring: Edward Norton (Montgomery "Monty" Brogan), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Jacob Elinsky), Barry Pepper (Frank Slaugherty), Rosario Dawson (Naturelle Riviera), Anna Paquin (Mary D'Annunzio), Brian Cox (James Brogan), Tony Siragusa (Kostya Novotny), Levan Uchaneishvili (Uncle Nikolai), Tony Devon (Agent Allen), Misha Kuznetsov (Senka Valghobek), Isiah Whitlock, Jr. (Agent Flood), Michael Genet (Agent Cunningham).
What Spike Lee and company accomplished with 25th Hour is a minor miracle. This is a story about the last day of freedom of a white, New York drug dealer – Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) – before he has to turn himself in and start serving a seven year prison term he may or may not survive. How Lee took this relatively simple story and turned it into a brilliant, sad, tragic elegy of New York in the wake of 9/11, while still being one of the best ensemble films I have ever seen – one in which every major character feels like a complete person, whose life was going before the start of the film, and will continue after, is truly remarkable. I loved the film when I saw in the winter of 2002 – and yet, I don’t think I fully appreciated just what a masterpiece the film actually is – and I think many people are in the same boat. It has become one of Lee’s most praised films – but he was ahead of the curve on this one – and it took everyone else a while to catch up.
The movie is essentially the last 24 hours that Monty has before prison – with a few flashbacks for good measure. The film opens with one of those flashbacks, as Monty and one of his Russian drug dealer associates come across a badly injured dog on the road – Monty assumes that it was used in dog fights, and discarded like trash when it lost. For some reason, Monty takes a shine to the dog – even after he tries to bite him. He takes him to the vet. Flash forward to the morning of his last day, and Monty is walking this dog – Doyle – around New York by himself. He has plans that night – his “associates” are throwing him a party at an exclusive club, he’ll be with his two childhood best friends, Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), now an English teacher at the private school they all attended as teenagers (before Monty was thrown out for dealing weed) and Frank (Barry Pepper), a Wall Street trader – the type of guy who could probably quote Gordon Gecko from memory. There’s also his girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) – although there is some distance there – an unspoken suspicion. Eventually, we will see how Monty got arrested – when DEA agents knocked on his door with a warrant, and somehow just knew to look in the couch cushions. Was it Naturelle who squealed? Someone must have.
So yes, 25th Hour is a movie about a drug dealer – one who maybe, as Frank says, is going to get what he deserves. He is guilty after all – he made money feeding other people’s addictions, some of whom probably died because of it. He was smart enough to do something else if he wanted to. But it’s one of those things that happens – you get in deeper and deeper until you cannot get out. His father (Brian Cox) needed money – he took out loans from the type of people you don’t take loans from, and was all too happy to take Monty’s money then – knowing full well where it came from, something that fills him with guilt now.
But there is more here than a story of a drug dealer. There is a remarkable, and now justly infamous sequence, where Norton looks in the mirror, and his reflection starts a tirade – saying “Fuck you” to each and every different group in New York City, full of racist language, before he eventually turns it back on himself. That montage that Lee creates is a wonderful, in-depth portrait of New York City itself, in all its complicated, conflicting glory. You love the city, and you hate the city at the same time, for the same reasons. At this point, Monty is angry at everyone and everything – but mostly himself. There will be another montage that ends the film – a fantasy montage of escape and living a normal life, away from everything else. This isn’t Monty’s fantasy, but his father’s fantasy for him – something he has to tell himself in order to do what he needs to do at the end.
There is another remarkable sequence in the film – one that involves just Jacob and Frank, sitting in Frank’s apartment, by the window, overlooking Ground Zero. As they talk about Monty – and what will become of him in the foreground, the background is dominated by that huge window – and all that empty space where the World Trade Center should be. It casts a shadow over the scene – something larger, looming outside, not being discussed. The whole movie has that shadow – a sadness hanging over it. Like almost all of Lee’s films, it is a New York story – but the energy in the film is different. The exuberance of many Lee films isn’t there – even in the club when they are dancing, there is a sadness.
Have I mentioned the acting? It is universally excellent – with great actors doing some of the best work of their career. Norton has any number of great performances on his resume, but I don’t think he’s ever been better than he is here. We see that tough kid – the swagger – that he used to have and how it was all a front. He is back to being that kid – trying to puff himself up to be strong. But he has no delusions about himself – who he is, or what may happen to him. I don’t think I ever fully appreciated how great Philip Seymour Hoffman is in this film. He is, on the surface, the nice guy of the three childhood friends – the rich kid who has stayed ensconced in that world of privilege. I know I never appreciated how great Anna Paquin is in this film before. Playing Jacob’s student, we see her in class – and then later after, as she confronts Jacob about a grade. Jacob clearly has been harboring some not entirely teacherly thoughts about her – and she is pushing the boundaries with him, testing him in a way. At the club later, she will be there again, and she pushes further. In a way though, she is pushing not because she wants Jacob to act, but because she knows he won’t. There is remarkable sequence when she goes to the club bathroom upstairs – and he follows. He crosses a line up there – it’s nothing too horrible, but it’s something he should not do – and her reaction is stunned, sad silence. What is she thinking in those moments after he leaves? Is Jacob now just another of those guys she talked about earlier – dealing with their mourning by slapping her ass?
Rosario Dawson has also probably never been better than she is here. She was young when she met Monty – just a year older than Paquin’s student is now. She knew what he was, but she loves him anyway. Part of that is, of course, the money – what he could buy, the life they could lead with that money. But it’s deeper than that – she isn’t the same character as she played in He Got Game – the girl along for the ride with the guy who is going to get rich. It’s more complicated than that. And Brian Cox as Monty’s dad is also great – you hire someone like Cox, because of the depth he can bring to a role, in only a few short scenes – a man who realizes he failed his son, and will never not feel bad about it. If you had to pick out a weak link, it’s Pepper – but not because he is in any way bad as Frank (he kind of perfect actually) – but just because we’ve seen this Wall Street stock broker bro before and since in many movies – he’s necessary for a New York movie like this, but he’s more of a cliché, than anyone else in the movie.
That Lee and company cram so much in 25th Hour, and yet it never feels overstuffed or like too much is amazing. The film is every bit of a masterpiece as anything Spike Lee has ever made – right up there with Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X. Such a seemingly simple film, and yet it is anything but. It may just be the most complex film of Lee’s career.

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