by Eugene Novikov
"25th Hour" is such a remarkable story, told so well, that it is tempting to declare it the best film of the year, shower it with the most effusive of praise, and place it in the pantheon of Spike Lee Joints. There is so much here that's great, that's funny, that's devastating, that's moving on a level that few films this past year have reached; the only 2002 release that touched me more deeply was probably "Rabbit-Proof Fence." It is difficult for me, both as a writer and film enthusiast, to adulterate my hosannas for a movie that packs such an emotional wallop.But, as they say, that's the way the prison walls crumble. 25th Hour is a mixed bag, hampered by a half-assed attempt to address the September 11th tragedy within a story that is universal and pure. The screenplay is by David Benioff, who also wrote the book of the same name (plus a definite article) in early 2001, before New York City was rocked by two rogue airliners. It's good to see a director refuse to ignore the cataclysm, but when the opening title sequence has the World Trade Center "beams of light" memorial as its centerpiece, and the movie is later interrupted by a long shot of Ground Zero, it begs an unanswerable question: why?
"Fuck this whole city and everyone in it."
With that unpleasantness out of the way, I can focus on the film's virtues, which are many. Virtue number one: Edward Norton. Throughout his illustrious six-year career, he has been typecast in the best possible way, almost invariably playing bright, confident, quietly dangerous young men. His presence lends credibility to any plot, no matter how ludicrous; I'd like to see him do sci-fi, because the plausibility questions that usually accompany the genre would probably go away. He is perfectly cast here as Monty Brogan, a mid-level drug dealer in NYC who finally gets busted and is living out his final day of freedom before being forced to take responsibility for his actions with a seven-year prison sentence.
Understandably, he has concerns. His options, as outlined by his best buddy Frank (Barry Pepper), are few and none too appealing: basically, he can try to run, or he can go to jail. Seven years doesn't seem like an eternity, but Monty is a slight, good-looking fellow; in other words, the kind that's liable to face difficulty in a maximum-security penitentiary.
Monty's impending departure is tough on the people in his life, particularly his much-younger Puerto Rican girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), who has spent the length of their relationship defending its legitimacy. Monty is tipped off that his girl might have been the one who made that fateful call to the police. She, along with Frank and mutual friend Jakob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), plan a last night on the town for Monty. Jakob, a socially and sexually repressed high school teacher, has an encounter with one of his students (Anna Paquin) when the four of them go to a popular club.
The movie has a loose, naturalistic feel about it, a distinctive rhythm that kept me absolutely riveted. Lee completely ignores the plotting and pacing conventions of any and every genre, fracturing the chronology without warning, going off on unexpected tangents with supporting characters, filming takes that last endless minuntes, giving us enough emotional climaxes for a half-dozen films. The aforementioned club sequence is incredible, building tension with dialogue, gestures and use of background. It helps that Benioff shows a remarkable flair for writing nimble, convincing, often very funny dialogue.
Through 25th Hour's last thirty minutes, I had a lump in my throat the size of a pomegranate. The film crushes us with a mind-blowing scene under a park bridge, then gives us a few moments of hope only to plunge again into despair. The final act contains a great performance by the reliable Brian Cox, who has with Norton a genuine, tender father-son rapport. I have heard some call their scenes together "schmaltzy," but they're filled with a pitch-black irony that made "schmaltz" the last thing from my mind.
It's been argued that Lee is making a political statement here, with September 11th metaphors all around, but I'm choosing to ignore it. It's silly. 25th Hour would have been a masterpiece if only Spike Lee had left Benioff's powerful story the hell alone.(Review reprinted from FilmBlather.com)
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originally posted: 03/04/07 06:40:51