Warning: Some minor spoilers ahead.
Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) is going to prison, “to hell for seven years.” A longtime drug dealer, he’s heard all the stories about how bad it’s going to be. The day before he’s scheduled to report, his two best friends want to take him out — to get him drunk and happy so he’ll have a “last good night” to take with him, and they’ll have one to hold on to as well.
Contemplating this imminent loss, Jakob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Frank (Barry Pepper) drink beers and argue. Throughout their conversation, the camera doesn’t move, framing them with a window in investment banker Frank’s apartment. It looks out on Ground Zero. When Jake, a prep school teacher, observes that, according to the New York Times, “the air is bad down here,” Frank snaps back, “Fuck the Times. I read the Post.” Besides, he snarls, all attitude and anger, no terrorists are going to chase him off his own property.
Jakob changes the subject to Monty’s dog, Doyle. Too bad Monty can’t bring him along to the penitentiary. Frank schools Jake: first off, no one brings his dog, and second, “Guys who look like Monty don’t do well in prison.” When Jake hopefully suggests he’ll go visit Monty once a month, Frank snaps: he knew what he was doing, he lived well off “the misery of other people.” And the price, for everyone, will be terrible. “After tonight,” Frank adds, “It’s bye-bye Monty. He’s gone.” With this, the camera cuts, at last, to show the masked workers at Ground Zero, below. Illuminated by floodlights, they rake and shovel, seemingly endlessly.
The connections between this difficult conversation and its devastating framing are at the heart of Spike Lee’s The 25th Hour. While its narrative focus is Monty’s last night, the film is also about survival in more abstract and concrete senses. It opens with huge, hard-hitting shots of the March 2002 tribute to the Twin Towers, the towers of light. Initially, these floodlights are so close in the frame that they’re almost unreadable, but as the shots pull out, the specifics of their memory and trauma become clear. It’s ironic, perhaps, that distance brings (or allows) meaning, but also fitting. Just as Frank and Jake struggle over the implications and consequences of Ground Zero for themselves, so does New York City, and by extension, the nation, continue to contemplate and (mis)understand. Heartbreaking, the process is inevitable.
That Lee’s movie sets Monty’s individual story against this almost unfathomably large — simultaneously personal and impersonal — backdrop is only one of its audacious ambitions. With a screenplay adapted by David Benioff from his novel, published in the summer of 2001, the film brings together feelings of love, grief and anger. If it doesn’t completely make sense of their combinations, it does lay out their collisions in detail, sometimes agonizing, sometimes trite, always difficult. For the most part, the film cuts back and forth between this last night (the 25th hour) and the incremental events that brought Monty to his unbearable present.
It opens with a jolt: Monty and his hulking partner in crime, Kostya (Tony Siragusa), booming along in the night, happen upon a dog, beaten bloody and left for dead near the East River. Kostya sensibly wants to drive on, but Monty wants to save it, risking the dog’s frightened attacks in order to scoop it up in a blanket and whisk it to the all-night vet’s in the trunk of his car. Though the damage to the dog takes place off screen, before the film even begins, the scene of his rescue is turbulent, even violent, in its handheld digital camerawork (by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, whose remarkable year included lensing 8 Mile and Frida), jarring editing (by longtime Lee collaborator Barry Alexander Brown), and sheer noise: Monty’s car roars in the night, city traffic pounds and screeches in the distance.
This is an apt start for a film so attentive to the effects of rage and fear, the will to bear and beat adversity: even in the midst of chaos, Monty wants to do the right thing. And he’s rewarded: in the next scene, jumped months ahead in time, he’s walking Doyle, now healthy and doting, along the riverside. When an old client approaches, Monty says no. He’s been “touched,” he says, “It’s over.”
The film goes on to reveal how this end has come to him, and how it looms as a new, frightening beginning. He visits his retired fireman dad, James (Brian Cox), now a pub owner. The walls of his establishment are decorated with a shrine to real-life members of the fire department’s Rescue 5, James’ unit, who died 9-11. (No matter where you go in this film, the recent past haunts you.) As it turns out, Monty’s lapse into big-time dealing had to do with his alcoholic dad’s own needs, though it started early, when he was in school, where he was kicked off the basketball team. Now, over a last steak dinner at the bar, he tries to comfort James, who worries that Monty suffered from his mother’s death, or that his own drunkenness left his son alone. Monty doesn’t want to hear it: “It wasn’t you, Pop.”
Monty heads into the bathroom, where he confronts himself in the dingy mirror, launches into a tirade, projecting his dread and fury onto all the “others” and “assholes” he can think of, a series of “Fuck yous” aimed at the Sikhs and Pakistanis, the terrorists, the Chelsea boys, the Russians in Brighton Beach, the brothers, the Korean grocers all of whom come right back at him, fronting just like him, mad a the world and blaming everyone else. Many have compared this imaginary spree to the similarly framed and powerful tirade sequence in Do the Right Thing (1989), but there’s something else going on here, too. It’s awful to think that the same sentiments and set-ups are equally relevant some thirteen years later, a bleak backdrop to 9-11.
Being a dealer, Monty is perhaps the most obvious embodiment of greed and selfishness in this new world order (though, of course, it’s hardly specific to his particular generation or class. Wheeling as best he can to make it to the next level, Monty resents everyone he’s learned to see as his competitor and enemy, unable to see through to the system that positions everyone except, perhaps, the most spectacularly privileged, to lose. Like the tremendous close-ups of the tremendous floodlights, these in-your-face shots indicate the costs of such myopia.
Monty’s other grave loss is more romantic, in several senses. He has a girl, Naturelle Rivera (Rosario Dawson), whom he encourages her to move on, to begin her life anew once he’s gone. In part, this advice is a function of their own complicated past: flashbacks show that he met her while she was still in high school, on a playground where he was selling drugs. Their first flirtation — he in a black leather jacket, she in her schoolgirl uniform, takes place on the swings. When the Puerto Rican girl reveals that she plays basketball, the brooding Monty is visibly delighted: “It’s not every day I meet a girl as pretty as you who plays the three-spot.”
Charming at the same time that it’s insidious (she’s 17, says she’s 18, she’s Rosario Dawson, he’s willing to hear the lie), this budding love story can only end badly — you already know he’s going to jail. Worse, he has suspicions, encouraged by Kostya and Frank, that his beautiful, affectionate and perfectly named Naturelle is the one who turned him in to the DEA. It’s a grim thought (though his dad insists it can’t be, “She’s a good girl”), and goes to the film’s thematic interests in loyalty and distrust, mourning and pushing forward.
While Nat is clearly troubled by his coldness on this, their last day together, she’s also determined to stick it out, and agrees to wear the dress he likes, “the silver one,” to the after-hours party at the exclusive nightclub owned by his employer, the creepy Russian gangster, Uncle Nikolai (Levani Outchaneichvili). Here she meets another schoolgirl, Jake’s student Mary (Anna Paquin). Cast as Naturelle’s mirror opposite, confident, naïve, and all too willing to sex up her teacher for a better grade, Mary also suffers the Spike Lee signature shot, the “moving sidewalk,” as she makes her way to the club’s bathroom — it had to happen, might as well be her, high and pretending to be more arrogant than she is. Young and easily impressed, Mary looks up to Naturelle, admires her dress and her exotic life with someone who knows the club’s owner.
The clubbish frenzy permits the protagonists to split off and have separate rows and revelations. Afterwards, in the morning, however, The 25th Hour delivers its most potent images of what all that frenzy aspires to: hope, safety, self-possession. Narrated by James while he’s driving his son to prison, the sequence stretches out into an “America” that these diehard city dwellers have never know, a reverie set in the desert, imagining Monty’s life without prison, projecting into a future that might be. It’s a knock-your-socks effort of imagination and desire, Monty and Nat’s wholly integrated, wholly ordinary and extraordinary family (none resemble him, suggesting that he’s given up his fears of “visible” otherness). Just think, dad says, Monty sleeping in the car beside him, you’ll look back and say, “It all came so close to never happening.”
The story James tells is so simple and yet so outrageous, and has everything to do with lessons available at Ground Zero. It’s not about vengeance or violence, but about benevolence and courage. That the movie doesn’t resolve its own ending, doesn’t let on what choice Monty will make, is its greatest gift. The 25th Hour takes its time, especially in this last storytelling, and if it occasionally stumbles, making some points too obviously, it is, in the end, a generous, reflective, uncommonly resonant film.