– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.
The weight of costly decisions infuse every moment of Spike Lee’s 25th Hour. During the film’s daylong timeframe these moments add up to an overwhelming sense of regret and unease, amplifying the fragile relationship between character and environment. The singular story of Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), a convicted drug dealer spending his last night with family and friends before beginning a seven year prison sentence, takes place in the tender months following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, exploring deep into the traumatized heart of New York City. Locations become shifting, tormented characters, and Monty’s personal tragedy becomes a bedfellow for a larger often unmentioned day of reckoning.
But 25th Hour does not display an overt analysis or mosaic of life post 9/11. Unlike many of his other films, Lee doesn’t stand front and center yelling at the moon. No, this film concerns itself completely with Monty’s understanding that the life he knows is about to end, allowing for complexities and contradictions to resonate from the subtext. We make connections, assumptions, and judgments much like the characters themselves, and the beauty of the film seeps from the many incredible scenes shared by people repressing panic. In one way or another, everyone in the film has missed a crucial wake-up call, either out of arrogance or ignorance, and Lee brilliantly lingers on each coming to terms with this realization.
Monty spends this last day of freedom with his stunning girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), his childhood friends Frank and Jacob (Barry Pepper and Phillip Seymour Hoffman), and his father James (Brian Cox), slowly bringing in to focus the situation at hand. Lee uses a series of flashbacks that both explain and complicate his relationship with each, deepening this seemingly simple situation with layers of consequences and ramifications from past actions. The personal becomes intrinsically collective, and we are left with a story about the transcendent nature of pain, the overarching remnants of past decisions coming back to haunt us in ways we see coming from miles away, yet are unable to stop.
25th Hour could have easily been a paint by numbers morality tale about a drug dealer’s last night before entering an earthly hell. But Lee, director of photography Rodrigo Prieto, and musical stalwart Terrence Blanchard each reveal the fissures in this man’s life through a synergy of aesthetics, a joint effort of pressure on all the right points. Early in the film, there’s a quiet series of shots when Monty walks down the street, his dog Doyle leading the charge, heading somewhere, nowhere, anywhere but home. Prieto’s hypnotic moving camera follows from every angle, while Blanchard’s sweeping score fills the trees with somber recollections, revealing instead of telling. The film is full of these cinematic joys, where endless depth is given to a seemingly simple surface.
The specific moments of character in 25th Hour become everything and whether it’s the opening brutal screams of a dog being beaten, or Naturelle silently waiting for Monty to return home, Frank and Jacob overlooking the devastation of Ground Zero, or James calling out Monty’s name seconds after his son leaves the room, each clarifies and confounds the decisions these people make. Ultimately, the worst damage usually springs from trying to do right, and in this sense Monty’s tragedy is not limited to his skin. We are all “touched”, in one way or another, by the failures of communication, by the jealousies and insecurities of a friend, and the doubts felt toward those who care for us the most. In the face of complete mental isolation and destruction, these things matter less and less, and the tragedy takes on a whole new retrospective meaning.
25th Hour forces its characters to take notice of the time they cannot retrieve, using a fantastical, imaginary flash forward to highlight what will never be, jumping back to inconsistent memories that won’t let up, then living in the present with a character that has no where else to turn. At one point, Monty stares into the mirror and his reflection begins an onslaught of destructive discourse toward minorities and types. By the end of the virtuosic sequence, Monty tells his alternate self, “no, fuck you.” The anger, the stereotyping, the hatred are all guided at himself, and there’s no use in ignoring personal accountability. The decisions we make have to add up to something more than merely what’s on the surface, or what’s the point? 25th Hour is a daring, ambitious, ultimately devastating masterpiece about loss, both collectively and personally, and Lee blurs the lines between the two until one cannot be separated from the other, and all that’s left is silence.
– The Filmist‘s #5 entry, Che: Part One/The Argentine, can be found here.