I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t seen a single Spike Lee film before 25th Hour, despite his standing as one of cinema’s most important voices for African-American culture. But I know that I’ll now be hotfooting it to see more of Lee’s work.
25th Hour marks a rare foray for Lee by featuring only one prominent black character, instead continuing his exploration of New York City through other social groupings. Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) has one day left until his 7-year incarceration for drug dealing, and spends his time seeming oddly prepared for the experience as he hangs out with old friends (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper), his girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), and his father (Brian Cox). As the day progresses, Monty slowly peels his façade away to reveal his terror about both his life coming to a crashing halt thanks to his own choices and the realities of prison life, climaxing in a devastating confrontation between Norton, Pepper, and Hoffman, and an epic and serene monologue by Brian Cox which shows us an alternate future for Monty where he flees, mirroring a staggering Norton monologue near the start where he angrily lashes out at every single corner of New York’s population.
It’s a great story in its own right, but two things set 25th Hour apart: the grand orchestral score by Terrence Blanchard lift this tale into near-mythology, and Lee chooses to place the narrative in post-September 11 New York. On first glance, this tale of an individual confronting a terrible future of his own making has little direct parallel to the World Trade Centre attack and its aftermath, but if Monty is a product of the city with which Lee is so entranced, then it makes sense to view New York as it really exists at the time of production. I’ll be honest and say that the purpose behind this decision wasn’t readily apparent to me on first viewing, and there clearly is one based on scenes such as Pepper and Hoffman looking down on to Ground Zero. It’s this added layer of context that makes 25th Hour so ripe for future exploration.
And Terrence Blanchard’s score, gorgeous in its scope and beauty, gives Monty’s score an iconic sensibility. But Norton makes him real. Initially, his demeanour seems ill suited to a suburban criminal, but Norton soon becomes utterly believable as a drug dealer who perhaps regrets ever getting into the business, as if it was a betrayal of his own nature given that his friends, partner, and father have found success in legitimate work. Monty does seem like a fish out of water, especially among the Russian gangsters he works with, and Norton sells that admirably – it’s one of his best performances. The rest of the cast is faultless, although the subplot where Philip Seymour Hoffman is pursued and rejected by one of his high school students (Anna Paquin) is a baffling inclusion, although their performances make the story engaging in its own right. It’s another reason to see this movie again, to solve the puzzle of 25th Hour’s ultimate meaning.
Spike Lee has made a glorious urban drama for today’s world, and I can’t wait to see more of his work. This was largely ignored at the time of release, and it didn’t deserve to be. This is a tremendous modern achievement that deserves to be seen.