Published on December 19th, 2002 | by Padraic Coffey


25th Hour (2002)

It may to wrong to describe Spike Lee’s 25th Hour as a complete departure for the director; after all, he had adapted 1994’s Clockers from the novel of the same name by Richard Price, and directed screenplays written by other people, such as 1996’s Get on the Bus. Nevertheless, 25th Hour stands out from previous Spike Lee works not only in its lack of literary input from the director, but also in the shift of focus away from predominantly inner-city black communities, to more middle class New Yorkers of differing ethnic heritages (Irish, Jewish, Ukrainian, Puerto Rican), none of whom are African-American.

The plot is relatively straightforward, a day in the life of Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), facing several years imprisonment for possession of a large quantity of heroin. Monty wishes to spend his last night with his girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), whom he suspects may have informed on him to the Drug Enforcement Administration, and best friends Jacob (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a school teacher, and Francis (Barry Pepper), a stockbroker. They attend a nightclub, and speculate about Monty’s future.

In writing the screenplay, David Benioff adapted his own novel, which was first published in early 2001. The film’s setting, however, took on a much greater resonance in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. Thus, as much as it is a film about the vulnerability felt by Norton’s character entering a 7-year prison stretch, it is also a film about the vulnerability felt by New Yorkers post-9/11. Several references are made to the event, from one character’s apartment located near the scene of devastation, to the shrine to fallen firemen erected in the bar of Monty’s father, James (Brian Cox). These are, for the most part, subtle, though occasionally scuppered by an intrusive musical score and the camera’s lingering focus on Ground Zero at night.

The performances are universally of a high standard, though Norton’s role strongly recalls that of Derek Vinyard in American History X; there, he played a remorseful convict emerging from a lengthy spell in prison; in 25th Hour, he is equally remorseful, though facing the lengthy spell. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Jacob, too, is a character we’ve seen before from the actor; nebbish, sexually-repressed and socially inept. In truth, Barry Pepper’s Francis is more of a departure for the actor more accustomed to playing American Southerners in period pieces like The Green Mile and Saving Private Ryan. Rosario Dawson, too, is luminous as Norton’s spouse and suspected informant.

Lee’s voice as director is most audible during the now infamous ‘F-ck you’ montage, in which Monty verbally lambastes every group which encompasses New York’s multi-ethnic society; Italians, Koreans, blacks, Jews. This recalls Lee’s own Do The Right Thing, though it is interesting to note this passage is taken directly from Benioff’s book. It also recalls JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, when Salinger’s protagonist Holden Caulfield is angered to find the word’s ‘F-ck you’ inscribed on the wall of a dormitory. This is Norton’s grandstanding moment from the film, and the scene most explicitly addressing New York as a city, but in the end 25th Hour is as much a film about the United States as it is about New York.

In a dream-like, ambiguous coda, James envisages diverting his son’s journey to prison, and showing him some of the country’s most awe-inspiring sights. He then suggests Monty abandon New York, assume a false identity, and some day, reunite with Naturelle to begin a family. Though some accused Lee and Benioff of succumbing to sentimentality with this extended sequence, it is perhaps the most moving of the film.

25th Hour is already gaining a reputation as the finest film to address New York post-9/11. Many filmmakers have documented the event itself – Oliver Stone in World Trade Centre, Paul Greengrass in United 93 – but few seem equipped to tackle the after effects. Time will tell if 25th Hour is in fact the most lasting cinematic contribution to this subject matter.


About the Author

Padraic Coffey is a freelance writer and film critic who currently lives in Vancouver, Canada. He has written for the Sunday Independent, Ireland's largest circulation newspaper, and Trinity College, Dublin, ranked in the top 100 best universities in the world by the QS World University Rankings in 2014. Additionally, his film criticism has appeared on Volta - Ireland's first VOD website - as well as sites such as Taste of Cinema, Film Jam and Head Stuff.

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