25th Hour  – ★★★★1/2
Today (11th September) marks 18 years since the 9/11 terror attacks in New York City, and I thought I would review a film that incorporates the post-9/11 atmosphere – Spike Lee’s film 25th Hour – as a tribute so that we never forget what happened and what it meant. Spike Lee (Do The Right Thing (1989), BlacKkKlansman (2018)) based his film on a book by David Benioff that tells of Montgomery “Monty” Brogan (Edward Norton), a man with a criminal history, who has just one day to enjoy his freedom before he goes to jail for seven years for drug-related offences. We follow Monty on this day, as he reflects on his past and the mistakes he had made in his life. With the beautiful score by Terence Blanchard, 25th Hour is a film that showcases the post-9/11 grief and anxiety to the fullest, while also demonstrating the extent people are pushed to lead a better life. Copying with grief and coming to terms with tragedy and one’s life mistakes are just some of the issues explored. 25th Hour may be too long and Lee’s own injection of “poeticism” in the film does not always work, but, with the film’s vivid imagery, it somehow seems to speak directly to one’s heart and soul, being a film about hope, guilt and attempts at redemption, making it somehow rather special and significant.
25th Hour is a quintessential post-9/11 film, completed just after the terror attacks, and, in this story, tragedy, grief and anxiety about future are all felt everywhere and by all characters at some point in the film. One of the first scenes features the Tribute in Light installation at Ground Zero, representing the towers through the blue light display. In this background, we find melancholy Monty (Norton) who is coming to terms with his own personal tragedy – he was previously arrested and convicted for drug-related offences, and now has just one day to enjoy his freedom with his girlfriend Naturelle, father James (Brian Cox) and his two other friends – Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Frank, before he gets to prison. With his Ukrainian pal Kostya, Monty rescued a dog named Doyle just the day before, and there is a lot to think about on his part now as he circles the streets of New York. There is some unfinished business to attend to, as well as to maybe find out who betrayed him to the authorities in the first place. While Monty tries do so, we are presented with New York which is multicultural (some exaggerated stereotypes are presented), and our characters are both born rich (Jacob), and self-made rich (Frank), coming from Ireland (James), Puerto Rico (Naturelle) and Russia/Ukraine (Kostya). How life would have turned out if certain, but not other, decisions were made is the preoccupation of the story, as well as one’s inability to break from one’s violent past.
The non-linear plot makes the film more intriguing, and, as Monty gathers his friends for a last night-out, we also get to know them better. Both of Monty’s friends – Jacob and Frank – embody New York in some sense, as well as this feeling of inescapable doom after the attacks. Frank works on Wall Street and displays anxiety and cynicism, while Jacob is a shy, lonely and sexually-frustrated teacher who longs for romantic connections in this busy city that is too preoccupied with youth and monetary success to notice him. As doubt about Monty grows in Frank so does fear in Jacob, since Jacob also becomes attracted to his student, sixteen-year old Mary (Anna Paquin (Margaret (2011)). Friends’ peaceful philosophical debates soon give way to some growing feelings of mistrust and inadequacy to change the reality as they know it, about the world, their past and about themselves.
What contributes to making this film so “quietly” compelling is probably its powerful imagery. Edward Norton (The Painted Veil (2006), American History X (1998)) is a versatile actor and is good in this role of Monty, but pair him with a dog and include a touching soundtrack, and he is the image to remember from this film. Somehow, this image of a man walking with a dog induces a feeling of great sympathy, especially since it hints at loneliness and isolation, but the image of Monty with Doyle also signals both defiance and resignation. Even the dog itself is the representation of “one hope given away” since Monty rescued Doyle from a certain death and now has to leave him behind.
The main weakness of 25th Hour is that it can, indeed, be shorter and less “self-indulgent” on the director’s part, without losing any of its conviction or potency, and without compromising on artistry. Most dialogue scenes are interesting to follow, but there are one too many of them, and, given other almost irrelevant subplots, they do make the movie a little tiresome in the middle. However, sometimes, even “self-indulgent” film work very well (Laurence Anyways (2012)), and 25th Hour is one of them. The audience gets Spike Lee’s vision because the subject hits too close to home, with its emphasis on human struggle, human imperfections and human mistakes that one genuinely desires to overcome, but is sometimes or often unable to do so. Moreover, the film’s ending is both memorable and moving.
25th Hour does require patience and not all of its plot lines and dialogues lead to satisfying resolutions. However, the film does have an unusual, memorable atmosphere, with the film being also about loneliness and the inability of one to connect with others. With its emphasis on non-returnable things in one’s life and on human struggle to come to terms with reality (through all of what-ifs, doubt, fear, buried hatred and self-blame), 25th Hour strangely becomes a touching tribute to the city of hope and opportunity shattered by one unspeakable tragedy. What would have been a simple story with meandering dialogues is strangely transformed into something special and profound, largely due to some interesting directional choices, powerful imagery, Norton’s commitment, and a sad, but beautiful score by Terence Blanchard.