[This review first appeared at Ibetolis' Film for the Soul as part of his great "Counting Down the Zeroes" series, which you should definitely check out. The review is quite long - including a lengthy quote from the movie as an introduction - and discusses crucial plot points, so beware. It begins after the jump.]
Directed by Spike Lee
Written by David Benioff from his own novel
Released in 2002
“Well, fuck you, too.
Fuck me, fuck you, fuck this whole city and everyone in it.
Fuck the panhandlers, grubbing for money, and smiling at me behind my back.
Fuck the squeegee men dirtying up the clean windshield of my car. Get a fucking job!
Fuck the Sikhs and the Pakistanis bombing down the avenues in decrepit cabs, curry steaming out their pores, stinking up my day. Terrorists in fucking training! Slow the fuck DOWN!
Fuck the Chelsea boys with their waxed chests and pumped up biceps. Going down on each other in my parks and on my piers, jingling their dicks on my Channel 35.
Fuck the Ko-rean grocers with their pyramids of overpriced fruit and their tulips and roses wrapped in plastic. Ten years in the country – still no speakee English?
Fuck the Russians in Brighton Beach. Mobster thugs sitting in cafés, sipping tea in little glasses, sugar cubes between their teeth. Wheelin' and dealin' and schemin'…go back where you fucking came from!
Fuck the black-hatted Hassidim, strolling up and down 47th Street in their dirty gabardine with their dandruff. Selling South African apartheid diamonds!
Fuck the Wall Street brokers. Self-styled masters of the universe, Michael Douglas, Gordon Gekko wannabe motherfuckers, figuring out new ways to rob hard working people blind. Send those Enron assholes to jail for fucking life! You think Bush and Cheney didn't know about that shit? Give me a fucking break! Tyco! Worldcom!
Fuck the Puerto Ricans. Twenty to a car, swelling up the welfare rolls, worst fuckin' parade in the city. And don't even get me started on the Dom-in-i-cans, 'cause they make the Puerto Ricans look good.
Fuck the Benson-Hurst Italians with their pomaded hair, their nylon warm-up suits, their St. Anthony medallions, swinging their Jason Giambi, Louisville slugger, baseball bats, trying to audition for ‘The Sopranos.’
Fuck the Upper East Side wives with their Hermes scarves and their fifty-dollar Balducci artichokes. Overfed faces getting pulled and lifted and stretched, all taut and shiny. You're not fooling anybody, sweetheart!
Fuck the uptown brothers. They never pass the ball, they don't want to play defense, they take five steps on every lay-up to the hoop. And then they want to turn around and blame everything on the white man. Slavery ended one hundred and thirty seven years ago – move the fuck on!
Fuck the corrupt cops with their anus-violating plungers and their forty-one shots, standing behind a blue wall of silence. You betray our trust!
Fuck the priests who put their hands down some innocent child's pants. Fuck the church that protects them, delivering us into evil.
And while you're at it: Fuck JC! He got off easy…a day on the cross, a weekend in hell, and all the hallelujahs of the legioned angels for eternity! Try seven years in fuckin' Otisville, J!
Fuck Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and backward-ass, cave-dwelling, fundamentalist assholes everywhere. On the names of innocent thousands murdered, I pray you spend the rest of eternity with your seventy-two whores roasting in a jet-fueled fire in hell. You towel headed camel jockeys can kiss my royal Irish ass!
Fuck Jacob Elinsky. Whining malcontent.
Fuck Francis Xavier Slaughtery, my best friend, judging me while he stares at my girlfriend's ass.
Fuck Naturelle Riviera. I gave her my trust and she stabbed me in the back, sold me up the river. Fucking bitch!
Fuck my father with his endless grief, standing behind that bar sipping on club sodas, selling whisky to firemen, cheering the Bronx bombers.
Fuck this whole city and everyone in it. From the row-houses of Astoria to the penthouses on Park Avenue, from the projects in the Bronx to the lofts in Soho. From the tenements in Alphabet City to the brownstones in Park Slope to the split-levels in Staten Island. Let an earthquake crumble it, let the fires rage, let it burn to fucking ash and then let the waters rise and submerge this whole rat-infested place…
No. No, fuck you, Montgomery Brogan. You had it all, and you threw it away, you dumb FUCK!”
Montgomery Brogan would be getting out of prison right about now. It’s been seven years since his father drove him past the GW Bridge, out of the city that had been his only home, up the Hudson to Otisville. Seven years since he began to serve his sentence for pushing heroin on the streets of Brooklyn. Seven years since Naturelle Riviera promised Monty she would wait for him. Seven years since Monty provoked Francis Xavier Slaughtery, that judgmental best friend, into a brutal beating which resulted in Monty’s delicate street-kid good looks being smashed into a pulp, something he hoped would spare him from ritualistic rape by his soon-to-be prisonmates. Most likely, though Monty has just endured seven years of coarsening brutalization, sexual and otherwise, which have disabused him of the notion that he could cheat and trick and dodge his way through prison time any more than he could ultimately avoid the realities of the outside world.
It’s also been seven years since those ethereal blue lights first broadcast their mournful signal into the night sky above Manhattan, memorializing a tragedy whose horror was beyond scope, a disastrous trauma, which Americans were already trying to forget. Seven years since the flags on every street corner started to look tattered, the makeshift memorials to firefighters dirty and worn, the “missing” posters frayed and increasingly lonely on lampposts as the growing death rolls erased any last lingering hopes for dimming lives redeemed. Seven years since the waning of increasingly rootless and hopeless desires for something, anything positive to come out of September 11, for some sort of redemptive wisdom to emerge from the ashes of Ground Zero, for the growing distraction of war drums to fall silent before we descended into a hell from which we are only just now emerging.
If it seems vulgar and trivial to confuse the plight of a drug dealer awaiting his just desserts with the stasis and looming descent of a country knocked off its moorings, drifting towards amnesia and malaise, then perhaps 25th Hour is not a film for you. Then again, the idea of conflating David Benioff’s little book about a hood’s last night of freedom with the fallout from the greatest mass murder in American history has all the markings of a folly, particularly when director Spike Lee – never known for his understatement or restraint – blatantly relies on the power of post-9/11 imagery to underscore the emotions of his melodrama. And yet it does work, and so an entertaining, compelling story with a crime milieu is elevated to the status of iconic work, a lonely berth indeed, given this passing decade’s penchant for cinematic forgetfulness.
Monty (Edward Norton) is, of course, likable from the first scene, in which he rescues a beaten dog from certain and ignominious death alongside the West Side Highway. The dog will be Monty’s companion until an hour or two before his one-way trip upstate, at which point he passes the animal on to his neurotic teacher friend Jacob Elinsky (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Perhaps Jacob should run away in terror, as the canine – misnamed “Doyle” by Monty’s thick Russian dealer friend Kostya (ex-Ravens tackle Tony Siragusa) due to a mangling of the name behind “Murphy’s Law” – certainly does not ensure Monty’s good fortune. Yet truthfully, the blame for that misfortune lies more with the treacherous Kostya than with the poor mutt he tries to convince Monty to leave behind. And even more than Kostya, the blame lies with Monty himself, as he finally realizes at the end of that epic tirade which spews forth halfway through 25th Hour, following Monty’s discovery of a “fuck you” scrawled on the bathroom window of his father’s dingy Staten Island bar.
If Monty is charming, and also self-destructive, he is also pensive: a man whose streetwise compassion and nervy chutzpah is matched by a mournful and morbid self-consciousness. Lee, a master of kinesis and an avatar of release, does not do quite as well dramatizing Monty’s lingering paranoia (did Naturelle set him up?) or bottomless, barely-concealed anxiety as he does with Monty’s nervy energy or even his moody sensitivity. Yet this reflective quality, and the capacity for emotional pain, is ultimately supplied by Lee’s lightning-quick instincts coupled with a cannily relevant screenplay by Benioff, in which the writer’s novel is transformed into a newspaper front-page so fresh the ink’s running off it.
Trivially, this means that R. Kelly and “The Sopranos” are name-dropped; hence yesterday’s freshness runs the risk of seeming stale – but ultimately, 25th Hour’s relevance makes it an invaluable period piece rather than a dated misfire. That aforementioned emotional pain emerges to the forefront with a background that threatens and often proves to overwhelm the conversation unfolded before it. When Frank Slaughtery (Barry Pepper) and Jacob meet at Frank’s apartment, pre-gaming for one downer of a party (Monty’s farewell night out), they naturally gravitate to Frank’s picture window. Out that window, looking like a lunar landscape plunked down in the middle of Lower Manhattan, is Ground Zero.
Lee’s audacity in staging the ensuing conversation, a bitter discussion of Monty’s impending doom (Frank maintains that their friend’s life and relationship to them is effectively over, and that the bastard, whom he loved, deserves it), against this annihilating, all-consuming backdrop pays off, not so much because the power of the location props up Benioff’s fiction, but rather because the fiction is overwhelmed and swallowed up by the all-too-real location. At this moment, the narrative moves outward rather than inward – it is not so much that Ground Zero becomes a symbol of Monty’s and his friends’ loss as it is that their predicament becomes an allegory for all of ours’.
Meanwhile, Terence Blanchard’s fully orchestrated score blares on the soundtrack, at times threatening to drown out the dialogue. The effect is not subtle, nor should it be. For once, Lee’s audacity is his greatest asset. Throughout the film, as in much of his work following the first few years of breakthrough, Lee’s go-for-broke stylistics have a tendency to step on themselves more frequently than they delight. For every privileged moment they create, his editing tricks make scenes feel longer and more awkward; his showy camera angles, rather than juicing a scene’s flow, usually obscure its thematic and formal clarity; the bombastic delivery of his actors are less likely to bowl one over than make one cringe. Yet, at this moment, subtlety would not work at all.
What’s needed, and what Lee achieves, is a transcendence borne of facing the unmentionable head-on, without blinking, letting it hit you with the force of Frank Slaughtery’s fists raining down years of pent-up aggression and frustration on Monty. The movie, and the audience of 2002, needs this transcendence because there doesn’t seem to be room, or time, for anything else. Despite its sensitivity and its often stately air, despite its flashbacks and hand-wringing over past mistakes and future promises we know will not be kept, 25th Hour is ultimately not a meditative movie. The clock is ticking and as the title ironically suggests, nothing will remain once it’s stopped. Any hopes for a new beginning are dashed by the moving monologue in which Monty’s father (Brian Cox) tries to convince his son to run away: “This life”- the future, imaginary life he imagines for Monty out west – “came so close to never happening.” No, the 25th hour is not a new beginning. It is the end. This movie could be subtitled “Waiting for the Apocalypse.”
There is a confusing, evocative ambiguity present in 25th Hour. This arises from the tragic weight thrust upon Monty’s relatively light sentence. Though seven years in prison is undoubtedly a horrible fate, there are also much worse things (among them, seventeen or twenty-seven or fifty years in prison…). Many people go behind bars and emerge, chastened, to start over. Yet Monty – and, tacitly, the other characters in the film – view his imprisonment as a death sentence and the young man prepares for Otisville as if facing the executioner. The spectre of rape is evoked to justify this terrible anxiety but sexual violence and humiliation merely stand in for the more abstract terror that waits in the wings – the annihilation of Self. Over and over, it is incantated that Monty – should he eschew suicide or escape, his only other alternatives – will not be the same person when he re-emerges from the almost metaphysical dungeon that awaits him.
Here is where Monty’s doom takes on a mystical and mythical dimension, at which point the questions of the backdrop being too weighty for the subject or the subject too small for backdrop become irrelevant. We are suddenly dealing with different manifestations of the same eternal themes: the dissolution of identity, the displacement produced by trauma, the inevitability of death, the fragility of our safe world. Seen, or perhaps heard, in this sense, the structure of 25th Hour becomes symphonic, a duet with Ground Zero providing the rhythm and Monty’s story providing the variation. When the narrative teeters close to generic clichés, the echoes of 9/11 sound out. When history and memory threaten to sink the film in a miasma of overwhelming resonance, the more straightforward plot and identifiable character re-emerge.
The first half of the movie, sometimes clumsy in its exposition, a bit too falsely confident as Lee can be at his worst, relies on the gravitas of the background to do the heavy lifting. The illumination of the spotlights, unfolding under the opening credits and immediately following that first, snappy scene with the dog, immediately shifts the tone of the picture from gritty urban tale to mythic tragedy. That scene with Ground Zero is almost unbearable, pushing the allegorical suggestiveness Lee flirts with to its breaking point until we cutaway from the dramatic scene to end on a series of documentary close-ups of the hovering phantom itself, accompanied by a blaring crescendo on the soundtrack. Following this sequence, Lee fades to black, seemingly exhausted by the effort of his concentration, worn out by the strenuous opening of the film’s aperture which allows this dangerous influence to pour in.
From here on, the film stands more steadily on its own ground. The second half of 25th Hour works on its own terms as a reflection on friendship, betrayal, doom, stoicism, and responsibility (illustrated not just by Monty and Frank, but also in a perhaps unnecessary but nevertheless entertaining subplot where Jacob is seduced by a flirtatious student, played by Anna Paquin). The big set piece in the nightclub is effective, suggesting not only the elevated angst of the protagonists but also the ephemeral excitement of the locale. Here again, Lee’s energy and no-crap stubbornly strident stylistics are just right: other directors might condescend to the nightclub and the thrill of a night out in the buzzing heart of the metropolis, but Lee recognizes its vitality.
Hence the throbbing music and cutaways to dancing crowds are not gratuitous but a recognition of the fact that life goes on beyond the myopic misfortunes of our central characters; moreover, they are not insensitive to its pull even at this moment of importance. The decision to have these friends go out together on the eve of their dissolution is a stroke of genius, and if Benioff deserves the credit for conceiving it, Lee deserves credit for executing it with the panache of someone unashamed by his “distractibility.” And, of course, it is this very “distractibility” which probably inspired the filmmakers to include the contemporary zeitgeist in their story, suspending this 24th hour (because, as we’ve established, there really can be no 25th) in concrete time, heightening the sense of inevitable annihilation.
And yet, of course, there isn’t going to be any annihilation, no destructive goodbye, no conclusion, except perhaps for the film itself. Yet even there, Lee introduces a touch of ambiguity to the idea of a looming apocalypse. The movie does not end with a bang, but with a slow fade to black, a close-up of Monty’s battered visage slumped against the car window, a shot that gradually disappears before our eyes. The suggestion is not of annihilation, but of continuation beyond what we can see. The world of the movie will march on even after we’ve stopped watching. Monty’s last night will only turn out, pardon the cliché, to be the first night of the rest of his life. The 25th hour will indeed arrive, as will the 26th, and the 27th, and so on. Monty will go to Otisville. He’ll figure out a way to survive, or he won’t. I think he probably will.
And the rest of us will too. Time will pass, wounds will scab over without ever really healing, a memorial will not be built on Ground Zero, which will remain a festering blister on the metropolitan and national consciousness. Economies will fall, new leaders will be elected, and on a bright spring day in the year 2009, Montgomery Brogan emerges from prison, blinking in the sunlight. His dad waits outside in the beat-up station wagon, still running (if barely) after all those years. He’s lost the bar and begun drinking again, but he still promised he’d be here for his son. The father is, of course, the only one. Naturelle got married and moved away; she is a mother with one daughter and another child on the way, expected in the fall.
As for Jacob, he wrote a few letters, paid maybe one visit, and then found excuses to fall out of touch. Jacob’s most reliable justification? He didn’t want to inform Monty that Doyle had been put to sleep just a few months after his former owner went away. Frank, meanwhile, never wrote to Monty, never called him, certainly never visited. At this moment, his life is a mess: his wife has left him, the house on Long Island has been foreclosed on, and like many of his peers on Wall Street he’s fallen hard. His only profession now is “alcoholic,” much as Rick Blaine’s nationality was “drunkard.” In other words, he has far more important things to do than renew contact with Monty; nonetheless, his guilt continues to haunt him and probably always will.
And Monty? He keeps his mouth shut. Everyone will say he’s doing remarkably well, all things considered. Perhaps, years after the fact, he’ll follow his father’s fantasy and go out west, though he’ll probably find he misses the city and come back home. He’s still in good with the Russians. Maybe he’ll end up crawling back to them, getting a lowly job despite their suspicion that he’s too careless to ever trust deeply again, his noble refusal of further involvement suddenly irrelevant given economic realities and seven years of spiritual death. Or maybe Monty will keep himself together; he’ll buy his father a new bar and set up the pathetic old man as bartender while shrewdly running things behind the scene. All will go well until one day he goes to the bathroom to wash his face, looks up and sees, right next to the reflection of his 40-year-old face, a scrawled epithet: “Fuck you.”
Then the old hatreds will come boiling right back up. Because they never really go away – they may be replaced by new ones, but the anger continues to simmer, shooting out wildly, in no particular direction, much like those beams of light firing up into the heavens, beaming forth without target or destination, slowly dissipating into the hazy, poisonous atmosphere of the night sky, out of sight but not out of mind.
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