Film review of 25th Hour (appeared in the Australian Jewish News on June 6, 2003)
Directed by Spike Lee
Written by David Benioff based on his novel
Starring Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Brian Cox and Anna Paquin
Three film directors are mostly closely associated with films set in New York City: Woody Allen often places his films in a mythically romantic upper east side, Martin Scorsese is known for his Mafia Lower Manhattan “Little Italy” and Spike Lee goes to the neighbourhoods – Brooklyn and the Bronx: Do the Right Thing, The Summer of Sam and Jungle Fever. Lee, who is African-American (and directed the noted Malcolm X) long ago transcended his racial background to make films that adamantly portray the range of ethnicity that New York has to offer. His latest film – 25th Hour written by David Benioff based on his novel – is not only a return to form for Lee, but probably my favourite from this director.
There is a danger in over-recommending this film, but I strongly suspect that it will be ignored by most mainstream media in countries like Australia. 25th Hour is so carefully modulated, so well-acted, so balanced in moods, and so reflective of a post-September 11th damaged American spirit that it may prove too intelligent for the multi-plex crowd. When Martin Scorsese’s films feature hoodlums (as they often do), you can bet that the action will be violently poetic, fast and brutal. But here Spike Lee – never much known for reflective moods – makes a film about a small-time drug dealer that is alternately touching, funny and deeply sad.
Edward Norton (American History X, Keeping the Faith) plays Monty Brogan, a drug dealer who has been caught and sentenced to seven years in prison – which he fears greatly. The film follows his last 24 hours of freedom as he makes the rounds of his various friends, associates and relatives – searching for some sort of answers to only partially formulated questions, one of which is who turned him in. Monty has a beautiful, sensual and devoted live-in Hispanic girlfriend Naturelle Rivera (Rosario Dawson), old friends Jacob Elinsky (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Francis Xavier Slaughtery (Barry Pepper), a loving but damaged saloon-keeper father (Brian Cox, who also plays the villain in the current XMen2), and a range of former Russian drug associates. Each of these characters represent a part of Monty’s life, but they become symbolic for much more about New York City. Elinsky wears a New York Yankees baseball cap, is an uptight and sexually repressed upper east side Jewish high school English teacher who is in love with a student (Anna Paquin). By contrast, Slaughtery is a character right out of Tom Wolfe: the hot-shot, arrogant and fast-moving Wall Street commodities trader who lives in a flat overlooking the remains of “Ground Zero” – the World Trade Towers, and dares Osama Bin Laden to do it again.
And this is where 25th Hour starts to become something special: interwoven with Monty’s almost-spiritual last-hour quest is a portrait of contemporary and aggressively multi-ethnic New York City – from the ever-present American flags to the memorials to heroic firemen to the ever-present fear of a new terrorist incident. In Edward Norton’s hands, Monty becomes the mirror for this New York, most obviously in an amazing scene in the toilet at his father’s bar when he rages at New York. And this is where Spike Lee has done something unusual: he has turned a small story about a small hoodlum into a big treatment, where ordinary lives become extraordinary and of almost epic proportions.
25th Hour is not perfect: a number of emotional strands in the film (most notably Elinsky’s sexual obsessions) are not sufficiently developed or resolved, and the director occasionally lets his old driving energy and the film’s noise obscure and drown out the real emotional interplay. But the rage which Spike Lee has so often shown in his films here is translated into a deep and abiding love for New York City – and not the romantic love of Woody Allen’s Manhattan. The film is perfectly cast, none more so than Edward Norton, whose understated style seems to have moderated Spike Lee’s style, producing one of the finest American dramas of the past year.