Dir. Spike Lee. Starring Edward Norton, Rosario Dawson, Barry Pepper
What makes a teacher kiss his seventeen-year-old student? What leads a father to contemplate a new life for his son bound for a seven-year prison term, fantasizing about going on the run together? What makes a Wall Street analyst look himself in the mirror after making a show of his confidence for months, years on end? Saying that the answer is “9/11” is patently ridiculous. It’s a punchline, not an analysis. It’s all the more remarkable that this is an answer which, somehow, seems to fit the teacher and the father and the dealer and the broker. It’s not the reason, but they are all New Yorkers fractured by the event, twisted with stress that seeps into their decision-making and desires.
It’s been a year or so since the World Trade Center came down, and something is missing from each of their lives. James (Brian Cox) is a bartender whose clientele is primarily firemen and whose nostalgic wood-paneled jeep hosts an American flag. James is quick to blame himself for the faults in his son’s life now that his son is about to be transported; Monty (Norton) pushes back against his dad’s self-accusations, noting that no one was going to stop him from acting like an idiot when he was in high school. James is conventional to the point of triteness, but it’s the context which matters. The conversation doesn’t happen in Monty’s apartment or on a park bench, but under the insignia of particular engines. In a later scene, Monty tells Frank (Pepper) that he intended to quit dealing six months before he was arrested. He didn’t because he wanted to put a little more away to live on. “I got greedy,” he says, while Frank protests weakly. What he wanted was security in the wake of the greatest breach of national security in seventy years. Frank, for his part, keeps his apartment looking over Ground Zero with something like a sneer. It’s a bargain here, he tells Jake (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and we can see that except for the ghostly work happening below, it’s a nice spot. (I hadn’t thought about the clean-up efforts that went on for many years, and a matter-of-fact God’s eye view of rubble loaded into tractor-trailers and men sweeping the ash was a stunning reminder.) Jake teaches high school English at the same prep school he went to as a kid, teaching trust fund kids like he was himself. When he succumbs to temptation with Mary (Anna Paquin), it’s a recreation of his own past life, a desperate, pawing grasp for the teenager he used to be. Frank challenges himself to view Ground Zero every time he wanders around his apartment; Jake hides in a past where 9/11 is unimaginable, so consumed with this reversal that he does something unthinkable and criminal.
25th Hour is a slow movie accentuated with the excessive editing we frequently find in Spike Lee’s movies; one wishes that he and Barry Alexander Brown would let the actors work without splicing a slightly different angle at multiple points during a conversation where the speakers stand still. (There are some aggressive lighting choices in blue and red in 25th Hour, and for the most part these work pretty well. I really liked the scathing blue light on our principals before they get into a club; it’s like one of those UV lights people use to see what’s hidden or dried out in a room, and it works the same way on Jake in particular. On the whole, though, this is a movie that draws its effect from characterization rather than camerawork.) The conversation above Ground Zero that Frank and Jake have is almost entirely untouched, which is one of the reasons it’s probably the best scene in the movie. This is Ed Norton at the height of his Hollywood popularity, Philip Seymour Hoffman on the upswing, a slightly post-peak Barry Pepper. Brian Cox and Rosario Dawson are essential as the people closest to Monty, and both of them are just as good as the men in leading roles. Cox is a different man without facial hair, weaker and softer than we’re used to seeing him in other roles; Dawson plays Naturelle with enough slyness that it makes us distrust her when she’s honest, which is the point.
With this much talent in front of the camera, a meandering movie with flashbacks and translucent conversations is the right choice. The movie could have been pared down to a cool hour and forty-five minutes, and it would have done so at the expense of what makes the movie great. We would lose the repeated shots of the river, of Monty’s brief longing to be out on a towboat early in the morning that is reminiscent of the more wistful aspects of L’Atalante. The plot does not need Mary and her goofy belly button tattoo or James’ fantasy of Monty’s runaway Western life or Doyle the dog. Monty’s story is interesting enough without the add-ons, but it does not sniff greatness when a single man stares down prison without the context of the people around him. Doyle in particular stands out, for he is the beginning of the movie and near its end as well. Monty and his Ukrainian enforcer buddy, Kostya (the entirely unexpected Tony Siragusa), come across a dog badly hurt from a fight. Monty asks for Kostya’s gun, prepared to end the animal’s suffering, but when he reaches out to touch it the dog snarls at him. No matter how badly the dog has been treated by the people who left him in the garbage to die, Monty recognizes that death is nowhere on the dog’s mind. In the next scene, a year later, we see that he’s still got the dog, by now on a lead and sitting placidly next to his person. It’s a metaphor, obviously, but it’s also a way into scanning Monty’s basically humane perspective. Regardless of his job—a cocky middle finger towards his dad’s typical Irish bar, the sort of arrogant arrangement guys who never meet anyone smarter than themselves tend to fall into—he’s fundamentally decent. And of all the people and places and things he will leave behind when he goes to prison, none of them are quite as difficult to leave as Doyle. Perhaps James will have a heart attack and die, or maybe Naturelle will find another guy. Frank especially is planning for a future without Monty, although by the end of the movie it’s clear that’s a cover for the guilt he feels for never trying to get Monty out of dealing. But Doyle is only a dog, and after seven years the likelihood that Doyle is still alive is far lower than it is for the others in Monty’s life. When he ties Doyle’s leash to a bench so he can try to convince Frank to beat the bejeezus out of him, that’s his final interaction with the dog who symbolizes the best of him. Nor is it surprising that Frank, who Doyle has never liked, is the one who is supposed to throw the punches and Jake, who Doyle is friendly with, is the inheritor.
Ironically, I’m nonplussed by the scene that will last longer than the rest of the movie. Monty leaves his dad and their steaks to go to the bathroom, where he finds an “Eff you” on the bathroom mirror. It touches him off, and twenty-three peoples and seven neighborhoods later (key targets include, in no particular order, Naturelle, “the uptown brothers,” the Catholic church, Osama bin Laden, “squeegee men,” the rich wives of the Upper East Side, and Jesus Christ), he comes to the predictable conclusion: the one who deserves all this vitriol is him, the one who had everything and blew it. It’s a long monologue and it uses the f-bomb a whole bunch of times, and it moves between funny and incisive from time to time. That incision is occasionally about the times Monty lives in—his digs at the “Sikhs and Pakistanis” are as essential to the state of the racist American mind as the clean-up at Ground Zero is to the state of the fearful American mind—and once or twice about the people he’s gutting. My personal favorite is for the Italians he derides as “trying to audition for The Sopranos.” But on the whole, it feels a little tired. Norton’s timbre isn’t convincing, and the monologue itself has been done better before in a Spike Lee movie. This one is angrier and more caustic than the slew of slurs populating the middle of Do the Right Thing, but it’s too predictable to land with its predecessor’s power.