Love him or hate him, Spike Lee is undeniably a filmmaker to be reckoned with — both for his good and his bad qualities. And nowhere is this more in evidence than in the often remarkable and ultimately haunting 25th Hour.
Make no mistake, Lee is still a filmmaker who has yet to include the word “subtle” in his lexicon. He remains a showy, ham-fisted moralist seething with a kind of unfocused anger that threatens to scuttle every film he touches. And that is part of what makes him so fascinating as an artist: The threat that he’s going to burst into flames and self-destruct before our very eyes. Lee uses film like a wild-eyed protestor dousing himself with gasoline and striking a match.
In 25th Hour, however, Lee shows unmistakable signs of combining his anger with a greater degree of thoughtfulness than heretofore demonstrated. In a lot of ways, the film is even more unfocused than previous Lee works, but it boasts a tongue-tied eloquence that sets it apart. Working from David Benioff’s script based on his novel, Lee has what is probably his best material since Malcolm X — and he produces easily the most “literary” film of his career. This is both a blessing and a problem.
25th Hour co-opts literary devices that don’t entirely work on the screen and threaten — without the running commentary of the narrative — to make the film confusing. But these literary touches are also part and parcel of what gives the film its resonance and its almost hypnotic quality.
In adapting Benioff’s novel concerning the events of the 24 hours before drug dealer Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) goes to prison for seven years, Benioff and Lee have added a layer to the book by incorporating the specter of 9/11 into the mix. Where Scorsese’s Gangs of New York evoked this at the close of its final shot of the New York City skyline (hauntingly following DiCaprio’s narration about rebuilding after the Draft Riots of 1863), Lee’s film opens with the searchlights that fill the spaces where the Twin Towers once stood. It has to be accidental, but it almost feels like 25th Hour was meant to follow Gangs of New York.
Benioff and Lee don’t stop there; not only does 25th Hour take place in a pointedly post-9/11 New York, but the city’s devastation becomes a very personal symbol for what is happening to the characters in the film. It isn’t subtle, but it is effective, especially when Lee plays out a scene in which Monty’s friends (Barry Pepper and Philip Seymour Hoffman) discuss his fate next to a high-rise window that overlooks the excavations of the Towers. It becomes clear that the three friend’s worlds are never going to be the same, just as the city is never going to be the same (again, this dovetails with the Gangs of New York climax).
This theme — how things we think are secure and permanent can be stripped from us at a moment’s notice — pervades the film. Even a seemingly unconnected subplot involving Jakob (Hoffman) and his infatuation with a 17-year-old student (Anna Paquin) from the prep school where he teaches touches on this. It isn’t just Monty’s life that’s suddenly changed; it’s everyone’s. Stability is nothing more than an illusion.
Lee’s handling of these elements is rarely short of masterful. He has a bag full of cinematic devices and he isn’t afraid to use all of them. The movie constantly changes film stocks to underline the difference between fantasy and reality. Too, it uses a disconcerting editing style — sometimes actions happen twice, while at other times chunks of action are missing from the middle of takes. And Lee employs colored gels throughout to heighten the look of scenes.
Lee’s direction could have become too artsy and toppled over into the risible, but it never does because it’s all firmly grounded in telling the film’s story, and it never seems showy for its own sake. You’re fully conscious of the filmmaker at work — Lee isn’t much interested in the traditional suspension of disbelief — but it always seems right.
Amazing sequences abound in 25th Hour. Fairly early on, Monty peers into a mirror, reciting a litany of all the traditional scapegoats on whom he can blame his — and the city’s — misfortunes, only to then turn around and point the finger at himself. This Ginsbergian rant also appears in Benioff’s novel, but Lee’s almost hallucinatory handling of the scene is what brings it to vibrant life. This is filmmaking.
The same could be said of the scene in which Monty forces Francis (Pepper) into an action, which I won’t reveal here, that goes beyond the bounds of friendship. Similarly, there’s a stunning sequence at the very end that suggests an alternative to the real ending that’s unbelievably touching — and equally impossible.
Unfortunately, the film’s brilliance is somewhat compromised by the story’s obsession over the “boy toy” fate that awaits Monty in prison. Despite the seemingly obligatory look-at-this-body shirtless scene for Edward Norton, it just doesn’t wash. Norton’s an OK-looking man, but he’s hardly the prison pinup boy the script would have us believe. This is all probably an extension of Lee’s own ego more than anything else — think back on public remarks Lee has made suggesting his own desirability (not to mention the skewering of those remarks by Whoopi Goldberg). Regardless, 25th Hour is brilliant filmmaking that demands to be seen.