25th Hour (2002)
“This life was so close to never happening”
Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Edward Norton, Barry Pepper, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Synopsis: Cornered by the DEA, convicted New York drug dealer Montgomery Brogan reevaluates his life in the 24 remaining hours before facing a seven-year jail term.
The first major movie to be filmed in New York after 9/11, Spike Lee’s examination of a man ‘enjoying’ his final day of freedom before embarking on a seven-year prison sentence is filled with a melancholy sense of loss and regret that reflects the pain and suffering endured by the population of New York as it came to terms with the aftermath of that fateful day. Thankfully, Lee manages to convey these emotions without falling back on sentimentality or ramming his message down the audience’s throat. The city plays a major part in the film, and it is only natural that parallels between the anti-hero’s, plight and that of the city in which he has lived all his life should be drawn; that Lee achieves this so well, without letting the tragedy of the city to overshadow the tragedy being played out in Monty’s life, is a sign of Lee’s command of his work.
The 25th hour of the title is the one in which Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) must present himself at the prison gates to begin his seven-year sentence for drug dealing. He fills this short timespan by evading any kind of intimacy with his girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), whom he suspects was the one who turned him over to the cops, boozing with two life-long buddies with whom he no longer has anything in common, Frank (Barry Pepper), a Gekko-like trader, and Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a repressed teacher, and trying to assuage the guilt of his recovering-alcoholic father. And all the while, he is fighting his own fear of the brutal life that awaits him in prison.
Writer David Benioff’s screenplay is shot through with an aura of foreboding that is adroitly captured by Lee and leading man Edward Norton: Brogan is a man who, until now, has always been in control of his life, but now he has blown it and the good life he took for granted is about to disappear. And it will be replaced by a living hell in which he is destined to be a victim, a prison bitch, He’s a man about to be emasculated, and he is terrified — although he manages to hide it for most of the 24 hours he has left. Small signs slip through the mask though, released by Norton at precise moments with skillful subtlety at times, and full-on fury at others. It’s the subtle moments that work best, thanks to Norton’s sublime skill, and which are the most affecting and memorable; the fury — articulately expressed in the washroom scene during which Brogan vents his spleen on every ethnic and lifestyle sub-culture in New York before rounding on himself and declaring: ‘No. No. F*** you Montgomery Brogan. You had it all and you threw it away, you dumb f***!’ — is not so successful. As a piece of writing, it’s terrific, but that’s all it is: a speech — and it has no place in the movie. All the time I was watching the shots of grinning ethnics and Upper East Side wives I was imagining Benioff’s predicament. At some point he wrote a great speech, and he just *had* to find somewhere to put it. Sadly, he decided to shoehorn it into this movie and, despite Norton’s blistering delivery, it simply doesn’t work.
It’s impossible not to feel sympathy for Brogan, even though he’s a drug dealer, happily dispensing his wares to people who are sliding before his very eyes — the strung-out junkie haranguing him early on is also the smartly dressed businessman we briefly see in the flashback in which Brogan first meets Naturelle — without any hint of conscience. And it is difficult at times to remember that he deserves his fate. In fact, Brogan is probably the nicest drug dealer you’ll ever meet: he’s non-violent, he saves a mistreated dog and gives it a loving home, he finances his father’s Irish bar, and he’s nice to everybody — even the girlfriend he believes might have ratted on him. Oh, and he doesn’t do drugs. And, while it’s a mark of how good this film is that these things don’t spoil your appreciation as the story unfolds, they do rankle a little after the closing credits.
Norton’s stand-out performance is complemented by a strong supporting cast. Philip Seymour Hoffman is superlative as always as Jacob Elinsky, Brogan’s teacher friend, drifting dangerously close to having an infatuation for an underage student (Anna Paquin), and finding Brogan’s impending incarceration difficult to digest (‘what do we say to him?’ he asks Frank Slaughtery (Barry Pepper) as they look down on Ground Zero from Slaughtery’s apartment. ‘Nothing,’ replies Slaughtery, ‘He’s going to hell for seven years and nothing we say is going to change that.’, thus reinforcing the theme of loss of control that runs through the movie). Pepper also delivers a fine performance as Slaughtery, effectively transforming through the course of the picture, a character who initially seems smug, arrogant and shallow into a vulnerable and perceptive man who hides his fears behind this fake persona, and who turns out to be affected more by Brogan’s prison sentence than Elinsky is. Rosario Dawson, who had previously worked for Spike Lee in He Got Game in 1998 also gives a strong performance, symbolising more than any other character (apart from perhaps Doyle the dog, who Brogan must give away) both the paradoxes of Brogan’s lifestyle, and the personal crises he must cope with. Brian Cox, as Brogan’s guilt-stricken father, achieves the right balance in a difficult role. Also worth a mention is the atmospheric score by Terence Blanchard.
In common with its main character, 25th Hour isn’t without its faults, but somehow it manages to capture the mood of a city through the unrelated story of one man, and it achieves this with a distinctive style and grace that could mark it as a future classic.