Spike Lee’s 2002 film 25th Hour, his 17th in 16 years, tells the story of a convicted drug dealer (Edward Norton) who toils over the last hours of his freedom and the cost of past indiscretions before going to prison. While the film is easily not among Lee’s finest work, it does contain genuine moments of compelling conflict between flawed characters that are reminiscent of our own stumbles and lost opportunities. Notable performance is brought to life through Lee’s familiar and capable handling of serious material with an obvious command of dramatic story telling and cinematic language. Through Lee’s direction, the story is elevated beyond a script that at times comes to a screeching halt with terse plot points and rudimentary relationships. This film represents another move by Lee and his production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, toward more commercially centered and therefore economically viable and demographically available projects. Lee has spent a great deal of time working on smaller projects, like the documentary account of hurricane Katrina and the ensuing aftermath, but his forte continues to be best realized through feature films.
Edward Norton is joined by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Rosario Dawson and Brian Cox to name the most notable actors, and the film is based on a novel by David Benioff (Troy, The Kite Runner, Brothers) who also wrote the screenplay. 25th Hour is the first feature film to be shot in New York after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and it is apparent that this element serves, perhaps indirectly as a silent, emasculated narrator reminding us that something is missing in the world of the story as much as in the hearts and minds of the audience. Lee might just as easily be commenting on the unavailability of choice in this film, choice by Norton’s character about his future, choice for his father who is caught in the middle, choice of his girlfriend (Dawson) who must choose to wait for him or move on with her life, and the paralyzing realization that we as citizens of America have no choice as to the consequences of September 11th, 2001.
The 25th Hour relies heavily on a fragmented narrative and flashbacks in order to properly encompass all the loose ends of subplots within the twenty-four hour timeframe of the story. Unlike the film Rachel’s Getting Married where filmmaker Jonathan Demme chose to define his story by an approximation of the actual time elapsed in the story, Lee wants to cover more ground and consequently reflect on the life of Norton’s character that ultimately leads to his arrest and conviction. He uses important back story elements and fractured memories as a reminder that memory is an unreliable thing that often changes as we change and as we remain the same – or so we think. It is uncertain whether or not Monty (Norton) is guilty or the source of police corruption, but what is clear is that he deserves, to some degree, the scrutiny of his family and friends who have spent enough time around him to know of many unpunished larcenies and missteps. While the script resorts from time to time to obvious dialog and plot devices to move the story forward, there is the familiar tooling of character, camera work and attention to conversational intimacies found in almost all of Lee’s films.
Edward Norton, fresh from the dreary, disappointing Red Dragon (2002) is effective as Monty Brogan, the son of a working class father who like everyone around him are drawn into a web of sorts of bad decisions and criminal behavior. Norton however does suffer here from the same screen malaise we have seen in other projects of his. Many agree that he does not deliver a persuasive performance in the film Rounders (1998) and Death to Smoochy (2002) more specifically, are often caricature at best, loose portraits vacant of complex emotional choices. Norton habitually exhibits a kind of frozen inactivity, uncertain passion that is lost somewhere in the thought-to-action process where dialog falters or plot gets in the way of truthful performance. In the 25th Hour, his working class personae is notably artificial, relegated to a stiff leather jacket and facial hair, the signs of surface detail that is incapable of informing us as to the level of angst, turmoil and panic that one would assume a person might experience the day before a prison sentence. His character might have been better realized with ample amounts of the performance and direction found in American History X, to which he was nominated for an Oscar, and Fight Club, to which he was nominated for a handful of various awards and acknowledgements. This isn’t Norton’s worst performance by far and he is adept at projecting a screen presence that is vastly superior to many of his peers, but arguably there wasn’t enough fine distinction percolating near the surface of his interchange with others to amount to a memorable or even praise worthy performance. Monty who we learn was named after Montgomery Clift, the promising young actor who might have had Brando’s career if he hadn’t died so young – might just be the most telling thing we learn from Norton’s performance.
Brian Cox demonstrates an aged grace and poise as the befuddled father; he makes a career of meandering, eerily reminiscent of Chris Walken, John Hurt, and an older, more recent James Belushi who all possess the sort of calm realism that makes acting look easy. Cox takes every breath and subtlety of expression in like heady steam, blurring comfortableness with the uncomfortable, providing what amounts to a needed sense of place and history. There is a touchable guilt and misgiving by Cox, his last tempt to make some kind of right over his own shortcomings as a father in the face of his son’s failures is clearly a highlight of the ensemble cast.
Where 25th Hour seems to get it most right is in proving the veracity of Spike Lee’s cinematic prowess and the way in which each of his films, however varied, contain a signature that only truly exists in the very best film craftsmen. It is easy to distinguish a Lee film, though one is not always completely satisfied by the revelation. I strongly suggest you visit Matt over at Superduperubermovies blog who offers further insightful and informative observations about this film.