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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

25th Hour

Getting back to Spike Lee, I turn to his 2002 film, 25th Hour, which many consider his best film, certainly his best in this century. It is, interestingly enough, the only one of his films that I know of that has a complete absence of black characters (Rosario Dawson does play a woman of color, but she is identified as Puerto Rican). It is also probably the first film that dealt head on with 9/11, which happened right before filming.

The film concerns Edward Norton as a drug dealer who is about to go to prison. He has one more night of freedom, and we see, basically, his last 24 hours. His girlfriend is Dawson, and he has the uncomfortable feeling she's the one who informed on him (the DEA agents knew exactly where to look for the drugs). He is going out on the town with her and his two best friends, a sad sack prep school teacher (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a cocky Wall Street trader (Barry Pepper). He also has to meet with his supplier, a Russian mobster.

Lee does not completely escape racial commentary. Norton has a monologue in which he says, "Fuck you" to almost ethnic group in New York City, except the Irish, which he is. Later, he will see those many colored faces as he's headed to prison. Otherwise, Lee keeps the agitprop down and simply tells a story of a man who is facing the consequences of his actions. Norton is terrific as this guy, who is first seen rescuing a dog who has been left for dead, and then goes through the excruciating process of counting down the hours then minutes to when he's headed for the pen.

Some of the subplots don't work. Hoffman, who played many of these parts, is a loser who is attracted to a female student (Anna Paquin) whom he coincidentally runs into at the club. I don't normally engage in this kind of thinking, but why would Paquin flirt with Hoffman (unless it's to get him to change his grade). Hoffman is so clueless it's hard to imagine him functioning day to day. I did laugh at a scene in which the students read a poem and he asks what they think. A student raises his hand and asks, "Can I go to the bathroom?"

The Pepper character is even more unbelievable, a vain, alpha type who is first seen disobeying his boss's orders to trade, and then in a scene with Hoffman talks about how he is in the 99th percentile of bachelors. Again, it's hard to imagine that Pepper and Hoffman could be friends.

When the story is limited to Norton, it really works, mostly because of Norton's performance and that the film does not sentimentalize him. Even in a scene with his father, Brian Cox, in an Irish bar, Norton manages to keep things on an even keel, as does Lee.

The ending is quite interesting. Given that the movie is 14 years old I will discuss it. Cox, driving Norton upstate to prison (Attica? Sing Sing? It's fictionalized to Otisville) tells him they can take a left at the George Washington Bridge and head west. Take an assumed name, get a job paying cash. Cox spins a wonderful fantasy about Norton having a family and growing old, with American flags waving. But then, the fantasy ends, and they pass the bridge, headed for prison.

As stated, Lee uses 9/11 effectively and not in a maudlin matter. We know what's up when we see the skyline and two beams of light have replaced the Twin Towers. Then, Pepper's apartment has a view right into the heart of ground zero. It still manages to be effective.

I would put 25th Hour behind Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, but it is the best film he's made this century (just ahead of Inside Man).

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