25th Hour Review

(3.5 STARS)

After September 11th, films set in New York were forever changed. Any shot of the World Trade Center towers would always be thought of differently, and in some cases they were digitally removed from the film. Spike Lee’s “25th Hour” is the first film to use explicit footage of post-September 11th New York. It’s only fitting that this happens in a Lee film, for the director is quintessentially New York.

The scene in question is a lengthy conversation between two supporting characters in an apartment overlooking the ruins of the World Trade Center towers. It’s a haunting scene. It never calls too much attention to the setting, but uses it as an appropriate metaphor for the story.

“25th Hour” is an interesting film because it contains several powerful scenes, such as this one. As a whole, there are some moments when it drags, but the strength of three or four extended scenes, and the great acting and direction, elevate it enough that I can give it a strong recommendation.

The film takes an unoriginal storyline and tweaks it just enough to make it seem fresh. Montgomery Brogan (Edward Norton) is going to jail tomorrow. He’s doing a seven-year rap for dealing heroin. He doesn’t know how he’ll be able to do it, so he ponders his options. He can go to jail knowing full well how hard it will be for him and that he has little to look forward to on the other side. He can run and risk getting caught and eventually serving a longer sentence. Or he can end it all with one little bullet. No matter what he decides to do, this is his last day in the life he knows, and he wants to spend it with the people he loves.

He has dinner with his father (Brian Cox), a man who, for all his shortcomings as a father, really cares about his son. He goes to a party with his girl Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) and his best friends Jakob (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a high school English teacher, and Frank (Barry Pepper), a hot shot stock broker. But all the while, he can’t stop thinking about what lies ahead. He ponders where it all went wrong and eventually, he is forced to choose one of the three paths.

Some of the best scenes in “25th Hour” are directly related to Lee’s beloved city. The scene in Frank’s apartment is a standout, as is the scene during which Monty speaks to himself in a bathroom mirror and gives the people of New York a big “Fuck you.” It’s brilliantly written and directed, and Norton delivers the lines with just the right amount of intensity.

But there are other scenes in the film which drag. The subplot in which Monty tries to figure out who sold him out to the feds never really takes off, and most of the scenes at the party (which directly relate to this subplot) feel more like filler.

The acting is all around superlative. Norton is his usual reliable self, giving Monty just the right amount of vulnerability to go along with his rough edges. Brian Cox, probably the film’s standout, is heartbreaking as Monty’s father. For all his shortcomings as a father, he really does care about his son, and is willing to do anything for him. Rosario Dawson, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Barry Pepper are all great as well.

Spike Lee’s direction is also noteworthy. This is his finest film since “Do the Right Thing,” and he hasn’t done anything as good since. The story isn’t the most original, but the way he tells it is. We are never sure what Monty will decide to do, even when the film has finished. It’s appropriately open-ended, reflecting Monty’s changing feelings throughout the movie. Lee also makes great use of the scenery. As noted, the 9/11 scenery is evocative, appropriately conveying Monty’s ruined life.

This isn’t a perfect film, but it does a lot of things right and quite a few things magnificently. The acting, direction, and writing are all top notch, and the setting in post-9/11 New York is unforgettable. I watched this film in preparation for writing my end-of-decade best films list. It didn’t quite make the cut, but it’s still a very worthwhile watch.

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