Too late for redemption

“I’m not depressed. I’m pensive!”

“I’m not depressed. I’m pensive!”

Rated 4.0

Director Tom Twyker’s Heaven (a film not yet screened in Reno) disappointed me recently by trying to illicit sympathy for an idiot (Cate Blanchett’s misguided murderer). Spike Lee sets out to do the same thing, and does a much better job of it, with 25th Hour, another good film from the under-appreciated director.

This movie’s idiot is a drug dealer named Monty (Edward Norton). He is intelligent on the surface, but works in the dumbest of all trades: drug dealer. Authorities find a stash of drugs in his apartment and he is convicted and sentenced to seven years in the nastiest of prisons. 25th Hour chronicles his final few hours of freedom, including flashbacks as he reminisces about the circumstances that brought him to this juncture.

There is a powerhouse script here, and Norton masterfully delivers it. Norton’s prowess is most evident in a sequence where he curses out all New Yorkers in an obscenity-laced tirade of projected hatred. By the end of the monologue, the anger is turned toward the one he truly hates: himself.

Monty is basically a nice guy who has committed unforgivable acts, which ultimately make him despicable. Norton and Lee do a decent job of exploring the humane side of a criminal, making the character hard to dislike when you take away the fact that he’s a scumbag drug dealer.

Norton is not alone in his brilliance. Phillip Seymour Hoffman adds to another incredible acting year as Jakob, Monty’ schoolteacher friend struggling with a crush on a student (Anna Paquin, having a little trouble with her American accent). Barry Pepper is on hand as another of Monty’s friends, seething with anger over Monty’s throwing his life away. Rosario Dawson is good as Naturelle, Monty’s girlfriend. Some suspect she may have “dropped a dime” on her lover.

Strongest of the supporting cast is Brian Cox as Monty’s father, a man with a spotty past who makes a controversial offer to his son while driving him to prison. The film ends with a fantasy of Monty and his dad skipping town and heading west, where Monty starts a new career, tending bar in a town with no name.

In the dream, he is starting over and eschewing the greed and temptations that ruined his life. In a way, it’s an interesting statement on the simple, beautiful things that criminals take for granted and throw away with their selfish behavior.

The film is set in Manhattan, and it works the Sept. 11 tragedies into its storyline. As Pepper and Hoffman’s characters have a discussion, Ground Zero is visible through a background window. The people in 25th Hour are on edge for many reasons and the fact that they are living in NYC post-tragedy is clearly heightening their emotions. Lee handles this aspect of the story with major class.

The film’s Terrence Blanchard soundtrack, while musically interesting, sometimes feels misused, a distraction. There are also some noticeable sound editing and dubbing gaffes. I was surprised by some of the messy moments, as they’re uncharacteristic of Lee’s work.

None of the technical deficiencies do much damage to the film’s power. This is a fascinating study of personal failure and trying to survive horrific mistakes. At film’s end, I wasn’t too sure if Monty was going to survive his miscalculations, and I wasn’t convinced that he deserved that survival.