25th Hour

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 01/03/07 23:33:45

"Spike Lee's dark love letter to New York."
5 stars (Awesome)

Whether you love or hate Spike Lee's movies, they're not sellouts -- even a didactic, hectoring bummer like 'Jungle Fever' or 'Bamboozled' has integrity.

In 25th Hour, perhaps Lee's most consistently compelling work since 1995's Clockers, protagonist Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) spends his last day and night of freedom before reporting to prison for a seven-year stretch. Monty got where he is (in both senses -- a fancy car and a prison term) by dealing drugs. Yet we see no drug deals in the movie. There are guns and thugs, but no shootouts. There are flashbacks, but they serve only to flesh out Monty's life -- what he's losing -- before this day and night. 25th Hour, written by David Benioff from his novel, stays almost exclusively with Monty as his moments of freedom tick away.

Part of what Monty is losing is New York, the city he loves, and Spike Lee is not one to ignore 9/11's impact on the city. Two of Monty's friends -- Wall Street hustler Frank (Barry Pepper) and schoolteacher Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) -- sit and talk, in a very long unbroken shot, in front of Frank's window overlooking Ground Zero. "Bin Laden can drop another bomb right next door; I ain't moving," says Frank, exemplifying the movie's (and its director's) philosophy of pride and defiance in the face of disaster. Shooting for the first time in widescreen, and aided by the deservedly hot cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Amores Perros, Frida, 8 Mile), Lee gives us sprawling and heartfelt panoramas of the great city. Accompanied by his dog, Monty sits on a bench staring out at the river; you know he's memorizing the view.

Frank, Jacob, and Monty's girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) take Monty out for one last night on the town, and the mood is jocular yet muted, the atmosphere heavy with the unspoken. Monty, who seems to be known and respected everywhere, puts on a half-hearted show of indifference, but inside he's terrified and furious at himself. Earlier, having dinner with his father (Brian Cox) at the old man's bar, Monty goes to the bathroom and is set off by an obscenity scrawled on the mirror; he launches into a stream of invective (understandably but wrongly attributed to Lee, it comes right out of Benioff's book) that savages everyone in New York -- strangers, friends, family -- and finally turns viciously onto himself. In the highlight of this tense, angry performance, Norton makes us see how love can flip into hate: He rails against New York and everyone in it because he no longer belongs there.

Monty's dog is about the only one who loves him without complications. Frank tells Jacob that, as much as he loves Monty, he deserves to be sent up. Jacob is preoccupied with a Lolita-esque student (Anna Paquin) in his English class; she tags along with Monty's group for a night at the club, and her teasing of the flustered Jacob -- almost forcing him to act on his heavily repressed lust -- is another of those unwatchably painful Philip Seymour Hoffman moments. In general, Lee doesn't jump around much; he keeps the camera glued to Hoffman or Pepper or Dawson long enough to poke the truth out of them. This director has always given his actors room to breathe, create, surprise themselves.

In the gloomy dawn before his seven years begin, Monty goes about giving up what little he has left, even his looks. Monty's dad offers to drive him to prison, then starts talking about possibilities. I won't give it away, but it's the most heartbreaking alternate-universe riff since the dead child really grew up to be an Olympic-class swimmer in Stephen King's Pet Sematary.

But the movie insists on reality, and '25th Hour' makes for a fine bookend piece to Lee's 'Clockers,' which also considered the drug-dealer formula: You get caught or you get killed. Everything else is details.

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