A night in New York
Director Spike Lee strikes gold with the dark and anguished 25th Hour
Spike Lee’s extraordinary 25th Hour is about a convicted drug dealer (Edward Norton) playing out the string in the final 24 hours before he begins a prison sentence.
It’s not exactly a typical Spike Lee film, and it’s a crime film only in fits and starts, but that’s all to the good. It’s more than all that, triumphantly more, and its mixed modes and episodic nature work up great stinging swathes of anguished passion and dark emotion.
Adapted by writer David Benioff from his own novel, the story follows Monty Brogan (Norton) as he makes his way toward an all-night farewell party with his best buddies from school days, a Wall Street sharpie (Barry Pepper) and galumphy prep school teacher (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Along the way, he has a meal with his sad but stoically supportive father (Brian Cox), endures an edgy meeting with the Russian Mafioso who has been his supplier, and repeatedly mulls the possibility that his live-in girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) may have snitched on him.
That modest-sounding storyline is fleshed out with a couple of extended flashbacks (both of them from Monty’s perspective), and the variously bristling performances by the principals generate what becomes the central dramatic momentum. Lee makes post-9/11 New York an explicit part of the story’s ambient background, and digressions into the world of hip-hop and Monty’s fulminations on multicultural New York further heighten the stakes.
Monty’s profane, stylized monologue in a club restroom, during which he curses out every ethnic group he can think of and himself as well, sounds like a demented inversion of Walt Whitman. But Norton makes us feel the mixture of affection twisted by rage in this diatribe, and this daring sequence proves pivotal in the film’s development of an ironic dynamic between what the characters say and what they really feel and really mean.
One of the strongest elements of the film is in its portrayal of the shifting dynamics in the main characters’ three-way friendship. Benioff’s multi-faceted characterizations develop through a pattern of conversations in which different sides of the characters emerge, depending on which of the friends is present at the time. It’s a method that makes us understand that there is always more to Monty and his pals than can be shown in any one moment or scene.
Norton is excellent as a character who is smarter than he is tough, and tougher than he is hardcore. Lee’s direction is superb, and he is especially sharp in handling the story’s nervy and somewhat blurred relationship between reality and fantasy.
The musical score plays an especially powerful role, not least because it covers an eclectic range from hip-hop to classical and modernist. And the revisionist Whitman visions reappear to powerful effect in yet another form during the film’s final sequence, an automobile trip that opens out into a plaintive reverie on the joys of the Wild West and the open road.