Spike Lee’s Messy Beauty

25th Hour

Spike Lee’s 25th Hour would appear to be about a good-hearted drug dealer’s last day of freedom before he begins a seven-year prison sentence, but the movie insistently pushes itself beyond that. It should be a circumscribed drama limited to the dealer (named Monty and played by Edward Norton), his girlfriend, his father, and his two best friends, but the film regularly veers into the margins. Thrown into the mix are post-Twin Towers New York City, the Russian mob, and one of the friend’s students. Lee and the script take a tidy little story and make it messy.

But it works. You think you’re watching a story about one man’s life and the people he touches, but the film goes to great pains to disabuse you of the notion. In two early scenes, we see Monty’s friends in their work environments. Frank (Barry Pepper) is a Wall Street type betting on unemployment numbers against his boss’ orders, and private-school English teach Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has a charged encounter with a student (Anna Paquin) angry about her grade.

These scenes arguably have no place in the movie, because these men ought to be peripheral characters. Yet the film keeps putting them at the forefront. Not only do they each get a workplace scene, they have extended conversations at Frank’s place and a bar before Monty shows up for his final night out. Jacob and his student eventually get a proper subplot that has absolutely nothing to do with Monty or the main story.

The effect is to enlarge the scope of the movie, somewhat awkwardly but without making the film ungainly. Unlike the big-cast tapestries of Robert Altman, which show the mess of humanity by including virtually all of humanity, 25th Hour’s canvas is stretched almost by implication. By showing Frank’s and Jacob’s lives outside of Monty, Lee helps viewers remember that we all have spheres of influence, and that the loss of one person can have a ripple effect far beyond immediate friends and family. That’s why what happens to Frank and Jacob on Monty’s last day of freedom is almost as important as what happens to the dope dealer at the center of the film.

The movie is shot through with melancholy and anxiety, more pronounced and oppressive but of-a-type with the sadness and inevitability of the director’s wonderful Clockers. There’s something about working with novelists that brings out the best in Lee. Richard Price co-wrote the Clockers screenplay with him, and David Benioff adapted 25th Hour from his debut novel. Their work appears to temper Lee’s more in-your-face, self-indulgent impulses.

The script here is tight, sharp, and economical, with some wonderfully graceful exposition. You keep waiting for the dialogue that will spell out Monty’s situation, and it thankfully never comes.

In fact, very little in the script is direct; there’s a roundabout conversational style that’s repeated throughout the movie. Consider all the things that aren’t discussed. Monty never talks with his girlfriend about whether she sold him out to the feds, and he never asks his dad whether he’s still in trouble with the mob. (One scene suggests that he is.) Monty’s friends would never say to him what they say to each other before he shows up. Jacob and his student don’t set the ground rules for their nightclub encounter, with disastrous results for him.

This is a marked contrast to Lee’s famously confrontational style, exemplified by Do the Right Thing. The difference in approaches is most obvious when the director steals from his own oeuvre: Monty’s mirror reflection hurls epithets at various NYC ethnic groups, just as characters in Do the Right Thing did directly to the camera. In Do the Right Thing, though, the invective was meant to be taken at face value, as skin-deep stereotyping to make the obvious point that everybody has their biases. In 25th Hour, the text is fundamentally dishonest. By this point, we know Monty well enough to understand that he doesn’t believe his own words. But what is he saying?

Some have interpreted the monologue as a love poem to the city that only a New Yorker could give, and that reading gets an almost poignant payoff as Monty is being driven to prison. He looks out the window and sees (in his mind) the faces of all the people he’s ragged on, lining the streets to send him off. The city might be a cesspool, but it’s my cesspool.

I don’t quite buy that interpretation — I think the mirror monologue is more about Monty judging himself — but it underscores how much 25th Hour is a New York movie. Benioff’s novel was released in January 2001, so the weight placed on the film’s setting grew after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Monty’s situation can be read as a case study of loss — what a family, a circle of friends, a city, the world misses when one of its members goes away. There’s a wonderful Last Temptation of Christ-style fantasy sequence at the end of 25th Hour in which Monty’s dad tells him what life might be like if he ran west instead of reporting to prison. We see Monty at his new job and with the family he would start. This illustrates loss through missed opportunity, and it resonates deeply in the context of the nearly 2,800 people killed in the World Trade Center attacks.

Still, I don’t read 25th Hour as fundamentally concerned with New York after the fall of the towers, although Salon.com’s Charles Taylor makes a good case. Taylor writes that

September 11, 2001, is referred to directly only a few times in 25th Hour, and yet the entire movie is overshadowed by it. Nothing I’ve seen or read — nothing — understands what it felt like to live in New York City after September 11 the way 25th Hour does.

Put another way, the 2001 terrorist attacks are the elephant in the room. At Frank’s place, the two friends frame a window, through which the audience can see crews cleaning up the site of the World Trade Center. Frank and Jacob don’t mention the scene outside the window while they argue. Jacob finally acknowledges it by noting that The New York Times says the air is bad near Ground Zero. Frank says he reads the Post, and the argument goes no further.

It’s a funny, pathetic exchange, and 25th Hour in microcosm: two secondary characters avoiding real discussion, while the ruins of New York City sit quietly in the background.

That’s an interesting point about characters in the periphery being focused on to a disporportional degree. I never noticed that when I watched it.

To me, I don’t see anything having to do with 9/11 in the film, although maybe being from New York might have something to do with that perception

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