Friday, February 7, 2003

25th Hour / *** (2003)

Spike Lee knows perhaps more about man's attitude in the post-September 11 milieu than most of us are probably willing to admit. Take his latest film, "25th Hour," as such an example; revolved around characters who live in New York City following the tragedies at the World Trade Center, the movie mercilessly attacks our reshaped cultures without so much as blinking, challenging widely-accepted attitudes of positivity and hope as it struggles to understand society's vapid sense of justice. Viewer alarm is not immediately instituted by the director's fearless tone, however, but rather by his courageous excursion into such unpopular and ignored human focuses. The catastrophe of that tragic day no doubt brought a lot of its victims together in sadness, but we cannot also forget how angry and radical some of our reactions were, either.

Lee finds this outlet in "25th Hour" via Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), a nihilistic and frustrated drug dealer who has just 25 hours left of his freedom before he surrenders to spend the next seven years behind bars for trafficking. At a crucial segment of the picture, Monty stares blankly into a bathroom mirror as his reflection violently thrashes out obscenities and criticisms regarding every possible niche of society he can, stressing the injustice that plagues the land around him and has ultimately led to his premature—yet rather severe—downfall. There is an artistic undercurrent to this scene that gives it power beyond what is possible by simply having the character recite dialogue, too; it's high-pitched structure, consisting of swift edits featuring shots of Monty's vocal targets in some sort of questionable action, fiercely throws the material in our faces without so much as a brief pause. Lee's timing here isn't just brutal and destructive, but incredibly thoughtful as well.

Monty lives in a Staten Island apartment complex with his girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), the woman he assumes is the one who blew the lid on his illegal ways. His best friends are Jakob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a high school teacher who struggles with sexual desire towards his attractive student Mary (Anna Paquin), and Frank (Barry Pepper), a wall street stock broker who always seems to think he has to rescue Monty from inevitable danger. During his last day as a free civilian among the New York public, Brogan plots a nightly excursion through bars and dance clubs in which his closest companions gleefully follow along, a brief stop made beforehand to his father's local bar for one final good-bye with the old guy before he is whisked off into the state's protective custody. The irony of Monty is that he emerges as the only respectable being of the ensemble—neither his girlfriend and father, who have depended on the guy's money to survive, create the sense that they'll be missing him more than the cash flow itself, and his friends, two eccentric guys with ideas and personalities that keep them out of major social circles, appear concerned only because they seem obligated to.

Outlining September 11th itself, Lee forges a film about personal moral collapse and the resulting fruition that rises in place of it. With a script by David Benioff (who also wrote the book that the movie itself is based on), he follows these characters ever-so-ambitiously into their enigmatic psyches as they each struggle to cope with harsh reality, often succumbing to cynicism because it's the only instinctive reaction they can possibly have. Norton is incisively effective with this approach, and creates a multi-layered character whose motives are sympathetic but methods lack rectitude. Rosario Dawson as Monty's unassuming girlfriend is quite good here, too, maintaining a level of decency despite the plot's undetermined path for her screen persona (did she really turn her boyfriend in, or was there a different culprit?).

Alas, the movie makes its biggest drawback with the supporting players. Neither Seymour Hoffman nor Pepper have any narrative weight beyond the bare essential required of their interaction with Monty, and Paquin is pretty much wasted as the loudmouthed school girl that may or may not respond to her teacher's obvious attraction to her. The movie's plot, furthermore, isn't actually driven by any specific twist or dilemma; it just sort of tags along with the players and lets them decide where to go with things, even though it's always clear that the characters never actually know where they're going or why they're going there.

And yet the movie works. "25th Hour" may lack a lot of necessary merits to make it a true standout, but it nonetheless has an observant, inspired, interesting and courageous approach that has a strong lasting impression.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Cast & Crew info:
Edward Norton: Monty Brogan
Philip Seymour Hoffman: Jakob Elinsky
Barry Pepper: Fran: Slaughtery
Rosario Dawson: Naturelle Rivera
Anna Paquin: Mary D'Annunzio
Brian Cox: James Brogan
Tony Siragusa: Kostya Novotny

Produced by Julia Chasman, Chris Connolly, Jon Kilik, Spike Lee, Tobey Maguire, Edward Norton, Jeff Sommerville and Nick Wechsler; Directed by Spike Lee; Screenwritten by David Benioff; based on the novel by David Benioff

Draman (US); Rated R for strong language and some violence; Running Time - 134 Minutes

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