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25th Hour

Reviewed By Robert Flaxman
Posted 10/11/04 15:40:29

"The beauty of the everyday."
5 stars (Awesome)

In Spike Lee's latest film, 25th Hour, Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) is about to be sent to jail for seven years for dealing drugs. Gathering his girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) and lifelong friends Frank (Barry Pepper) and Jakob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) together, he prepares for one last night in the free world. It's an emotional situation, and Lee gives it the power it deserves to have. Focusing on conversations and emotions, 25th Hour is the ultimate triumph of substance over style.

There are certainly many things one could find "wrong" with 25th Hour, if one were looking for "conventional" film technique. Lee repeats certain shots two or three times in sequence, and he often ignores continuity editing, only matching on action when a character is speaking. However, there are certainly reasons behind doing this. It is easy to see that Lee's use of repetition is intended to underscore emotional connections; this theme starts in the film's opening scene when Monty picks up a dog that has been abandoned by men who had been using it to fight. With some difficulty, Monty gets the dog into his trunk to take it to the vet; Lee shows Monty slamming the trunk twice in succession. As the dog, later named Doyle, becomes one of Monty's most important companions throughout the movie, this moment is emotionally important for Lee to underscore; he later does the same with hugs between various characters.

The argument for Lee's blatant disregard of continuity editing is thornier, but the most obvious answer is that he simply doesn't find it important. 25th Hour isn't about smooth cuts and perfect action matches; it's about a man's last night with his friends before he goes to prison. It doesn't matter what the editing looks like. Aside from that, though, the edits simply reveal a short passage of time. It practically seems to be Lee's intention to show the audience all 24 hours of Monty's last day.

More important is a desire to seem realistic, so Lee stuffs the movie with semi-pointless, sometimes rambling conversations that add little to the narrative but speak worlds about the characters. Perhaps the most important of these is Frank and Jakob's discussion of Monty at Frank's apartment; in one long take they have a conversation of several minutes about how Monty will fare in prison and related topics - all the while, Ground Zero lurks in the background, out of focus.

If Gangs of New York was a tribute to New York's diversity, 25th Hour is that plus a tribute to the resilience of its citizens. Frank used to live in the World Trade Center's shadow; now his apartment towers above what's left of it. Frank, though, is unfazed; "Bin Laden could drop another one next door; I'm not moving." 25th Hour is the first major post-9/11 film to deal with New York's reaction to that day; the fact that Lee starts the film with shots of the towers of light that for a while rose from Ground Zero to the sky lets the viewer know that in many ways, this film is a tribute to the city's spirit.

Central to that concept is the blistering rebuke Monty's mirror image delivers in the bathroom of his father's bar. As Monty watches, the man in the mirror starts a stinging diatribe against any and everyone in the city, from "the uptown brothers" to the "Korean grocers" to the "Bensonhurst Italians" to the Hassidim to Monty's own friends and family. It's a fierce, memorable scene, one of a handful that recall an earlier Norton film, Fight Club, though it's more immediately powerful than anything in that film. Monty concludes the rant by telling his mirror image off, one of several instances in the film in which Monty recognizes that he blew it big-time and he's about to pay the price.

Though Lee did not write 25th Hour (David Benioff adapted it from his own novel), his mark is all over it in its "love letter to New York" capacity, from little touches like Jakob's Yankees hat to broader things like working a bridge into any number of establishing shots.

The key part of the film, though, is its performances, most of which are stellar. Edward Norton revisits his best work as Monty, conjuring up a character who knows what he's gotten himself into and just wants to have one last good time before he faces the music. When he first comes on the screen, there's a "Hey, that's Edward Norton!" feeling, but Norton disabuses us of it in short order. Barry Pepper and Philip Seymour Hoffman are each outstanding, with Pepper as good as he's ever been as a cocky Wall Streeter who deep down is fiercely loyal to his friends, and Hoffman as an uptight English teacher infatuated with one of his students (a rather annoying Anna Paquin).

Brian Cox, as Monty's father James, doesn't have much to do, but his final sequence in the car with Monty on the way to Otisville is as emotional as any fifteen minutes in film this year. Ex-football player Tony Siragusa's film debut is mindlessly fun, with Siragusa so good you'd never know it was his first job. Rosario Dawson, though, is easily the least of the main performances; she's not necessarily bad, but, particularly amid a slew of excellent work, she's certainly nothing special.

Perhaps the biggest compliment that can be given to 25th Hour is that we care about what happens to Monty. Movies that feature criminals as their ostensible heroes often suffer as a result; it can be hard to root for felons. The best of these films feature criminals who are in prison and/or remarkably contrite (The Shawshank Redemption); Monty Brogan will be in prison and is remarkably contrite. His fate becomes important to the viewer; throughout the film we are offered the idea that perhaps Monty will kill himself rather than go to prison. We want no part of it; we become Frank and Jakob and Naturelle and James.

We just want Monty to do some time, and we'll be waiting for him when he gets out.

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