Sunday Editor’s Pick: 25th Hour (2002)

by on September 5, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sun Sept 11 at 7:45 at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]
*Spike Lee, Ed Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman & Jon Kilik in person. **FREE tix at box after 6:45


Film Society commemorates the 10th anniversary of 9/11 with a screening of Spike Lee’s sprawling, somber elegy for post-9/11 New York. The director, star and producer will be in attendance.


Dumped by Disney in the holiday blockbuster season, and greeted somewhat turgidly by Lee-weary critics, The 25th Hour climbed its way onto a few Best of the Decade lists.


Michael Wilmington for the Chicago Tribune:

It’s a superb film, one of Lee’s best, with sharp, perceptive writing from Benioff, a tough-tender New York City writer in the Richard Price mold and near-perfect performances (especially by Norton, and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper as his lifelong buddies). But much of what makes it so powerful and moving comes from Lee’s melancholy, heart-struck feelings about New York City, in the throes of its post-9/11 trauma and togetherness.
“25th Hour” struck me as one of the best movies of 2002, but it’s also a film that will strike some of its audience as ethically dubious or threatening, pulling them down into a world in which the usual moral certainties have uncomfortably dissolved. In the 25 hours Lee and Benioff show us, plus flashbacks, we get a portrait of friendship, love and family bonds done with real warmth and humanity but placed in such a seemingly unlikely context–among people who at first glance, may strike us as so unsavory or deeply flawed–that it scrambles all our easy responses.


“25th Hour” is reminiscent in some ways of Lee’s best film to date, the 1989 “day-in-the-life-of-Brooklyn” drama “Do the Right Thing.” But there’s a big difference; here, most of the major crises have already happened before the day starts. The moral choices have been made, the consequences are about to be suffered. We’re not building toward a conflagration but instead raking over the ashes–both Monty’s and those of New York itself.



David Denby for the New Yorker:

Spike Lee’s profanely eloquent “25th Hour” comes to a climax of sorts when its hero, Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), a New York drug dealer who’s about to enter the slammer, goes to the rest room in his father’s bar and sees the words “Fuck you” written on the mirror. Long before we get to the conclusion of the scene, we realize that Monty’s rant is a kind of perverse love letter, New York style, to the life he is about to leave. The movie, derived from David Benioff’s novel (Benioff wrote the fantastically voluble screenplay, too), might be described as a turbulent elegy for the burned-out hopes of a generation. On his last day of freedom, Monty receives solace from his two oldest friends, a cynical Wall Street trader (Barry Pepper) and a schlubby private-school teacher (Philip Seymour Hoffman), both of whom, provoked by his departure, are forced to confront their own dissatisfactions. A large part of the movie consists of wrenching confrontations among these three, with occasional scenes between Monty and his sorrowful dad (Brian Cox) and loving girlfriend (Rosario Dawson). The glory of the movie is its talk—the profane New York verve of the three men, suffused with a post-September 11th bitterness.”25th Hour” is a crime-genre movie devoted to personal relations and New York atmosphere. It captures the city’s bitter, wire-taut mood after September 11th, and I hope that Disney, despite its disastrous mistiming of the movie’s release (putting it up against seasonal blockbusters), finds some way to bring this acrid and brilliant little picture to the large audience it deserves.


Michael Koresky for Reverse Shot:

While Scorsese finally propped up the remains of his pet project’s exhumed corpse and was unequivocally lauded by the mainstream press for using his amalgamated depictions of 19th-century gang warfare to reflect post-9/11 anxieties, Spike Lee’s passionate New York elegy rode a pushcart into theaters behind Marty’s bandwagon. As usual, many critics just wanted Spike to shut up, the best of whom are only able to level accusations of didacticism, as if that’s the worst offense of which a director is capable. Marty’s tenuous parallels are forced at best, insulting at worst. Spike’s joint is the real deal: he and his brilliant DP Rodrigo Prieto focus their lens, washed-out and dog-tired, on urban anomie, personal responsibility, gender miscommunication, class resentment, political distrust, and social role-playing, all set to Terence Blanchard’s lush waltz. Overstuffed? Yes, and exhilarating. Edward Norton’s drug dealer barely qualifies as a protagonist next to New York’s looming infrastructure, always ready to collapse in a haze of missed opportunities and smoky motivations.


Edward Norton’s infamous to-mirror monologue:

Bilge Ebiri connects the above sequence (“what might be the film’s most powerful and notable scene”) with the movie’s specifically post-9/11 thematics:

I need you to make me ugly.” Those are the words convicted drug dealer Monty Brogan (Ed Norton) utters to his friends in the film’s climactic scene. Monty has just lived his last night as a free man before beginning a seven-year stint in Otisville prison. And he wants his friends to pummel his face in so that he’s not so good looking when he goes behind bars in a few hours; he doesn’t want to be the pretty boy who gets raped.
Many have taken this scene quite literally. To them 25th Hour basically devolves into a movie about a criminal who is afraid of getting raped when he goes to prison. Some have also suggested (I’d say ludicrously) that the film is indulging in gay panic, as if prison rape is supposed to be an opportunity to broaden one’s horizons or something….[But] this scene, in the context of the film, isn’t about rape at all; it’s about self-annihilation. In order to actually get Frank to actually beat him up, Monty has to threaten Jakob with violence. He needs to lash out in order to inflict damage on himself. That echoes the “Fuck you” mirror scene in its trajectory. […]
This strange brand of self-annihilation and loathing, this deep need to be “made ugly” in order to find salvation – or to even have any hope of finding salvation – seems to me to be the key to the film’s 9/11 metaphor. It’s not one to take too literally – Lee has plenty of incendiary political beliefs, but I don’t think he’s necessarily making a 1:1 comparison between New York City or America and an entitled drug dealer. Rather, this is a manifestation of the idea that 9/11 “made us ugly” – that is to say, hurt us and stripped us of our illusions. It broke us but also, maybe, allowed what remains of us to survive. It’s an unforgiving and cruel calculus, to be sure, but it does allow a glimmer of hope.



A.O. Scott for the New York Times:

All of this could have unfolded with the lumbering, schematic rhythms of a second-rate play, but Mr. Benioff’s script is supple and easygoing, and Mr. Lee’s direction has a relaxed, assured intensity perfectly complemented by the somber swing of Mr. Blanchard’s score. Monty is in no hurry to get to the penitentiary, and the filmmakers are not inclined to rush him. Mr. Lee gives the actors plenty of time and room to work, and their work is terrific. Mr. Norton, speedy and graceful, can talk a mile a minute while keeping his deeper feelings in check; he can, within a single scene, be almost sociopathicly controlled and terribly, childishly vulnerable. Monty is all of these things: an outlaw big shot and a messed-up kid; a dutiful son and a drug pusher who sweet-talks schoolgirls on the playground; a cocksure tough guy and a terrified pipsqueak.


“25th Hour” it produces a wrenching, dazzling succession of moods. Mr. Lee exercises his prodigious visual talents with unusual restraint, and keeps some of his more confrontational urges in check. Because the movie is so measured, so melodic, its bursts of wild invention, which might otherwise be irritating, are electrifying. The ending, narrated by Mr. Cox, is as bittersweet and sincere an evocation of the American dream as I have seen on film in quite some time, acknowledging both the futility of the collective national fantasy and its consoling, resilient power.


Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

The wonder of the rich screenplay is that it contains all of this material about Monty, and yet informs us so fully about the others. There could be a separate movie about Jacob, a pudgy and phlegmatic high school English teacher who is fascinated by a tattoo on the bare midriff of one of his students, and by the girl Mary who wears it. But any move in that direction would be wrong, and he knows it.


Everybody knows that Spike Lee is an important filmmaker, but do they realize how good he is with actors, and how innovative he is with style? We live in a period when many filmmakers use either a straightforward meat-and-potatoes style, or draw attention with meaningless over-editing, queasy-cams and showboat shots. With Lee, as with any classical director, the emphasis is on the story and the people. But he’s always there, nudging us, being sure what we notice, moving his camera not merely with efficiency but with grace and innovation. Because he doesn’t go out of his way to call attention, how many realize what a master stylist he is?



Andrew Sarris for the New York Observer:

Mr. Lee and Mr. Benioff have chosen to be brutally frank about the ugly realities of the Rockefeller drug laws that have filled our prisons, the permissive attitude of the authorities to fearsome prison rapes, and the rampant amorality of rap and youth culture. In fact, Mr. Lee -as always-piles so many problems on his plate that there is an inevitable spillover into a cosmic sludge of multicultural malaise.


As always, however, there are what the French used to call “privileged moments” that interrupt the flow of the narrative. Mr. Lee is nothing if not stylistically ambitious in magnifying and even distending his material and his characters to accommodate his perception of life’s sheer muchness. There’s a tendency for Mr. Norton’s small-time drug dealer to grow into a veritable truth-telling dispeller of other people’s illusions right out of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh . I don’t how much of the fantasy apparatus of the film comes out of Mr. Benioff’s novel and how much has been devised especially for the film-but whatever the source and the inspiration, the film succeeds more often than not in getting away with its digressions. […]


I still think that Mr. Lee has come closer than he ever has before to making the great film about New York City that David Thomson hoped from him in a favorable mini-bio in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.


And here’s the David Thomson passage that Sarris is referring to, excerpted from Spike’s entry in the 2002 edition of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film:

The great thing about Lee is that he has not tired or faltered. The question mark still hangs over the degree of his talent….Lee is doing so much, and he is only in his mid-forties. He is capable, I think, of a great film about New York – and it might be better if he saw that as his subject and let the responsibility of being the best black director around look after itself.



Chuck Rudolph for Slant:

Feelings of anger, guilt, blame and responsibility rage like a tempest through Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, which comes close to being the first major studio-produced film to confront September 11th and its aftermath. Approaching the topic by way of turning specific moods and emotions into allegory, it’s almost the equivalent of Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising (one of the Boss’s songs even plays over the end credits). But Lee, who’s always fashioned his populist diatribes for a public that doesn’t exist, isn’t sensitive enough a filmmaker to focus his awareness into shared empathy like Springsteen did.


With all of its oversights and indulgences, 25th Hour is still a persuasive, undeniably fascinating film—watching Lee throw everything on his mind into the fray, no matter how irreconcilable with the story, makes for an interesting experience. Certain to piss off a lot of viewers is Lee’s revamped tableaux of virtuoso, rapid-fire Do the Right Thing racial hatred, in which Monty, glaring at himself in a bathroom mirror, verbally punishes the various cultural faces of New York City only to wonder if he should be directing the hostility at himself. Another bravura sequence finds Jacob slipping in his determination not to take a bite of the forbidden fruit held by his student during a drunken nightclub encounter; masterfully constructed so that each shot has both visual flair and deeper meaning, it’s the kind of scene that could easily be presented as a stand-alone short film. (It’s probably the single best scene of the year.) And the film’s touching but unsentimental finale, although an evident structural reworking of The Last Temptation of Christ, nonetheless strikes a chord as Lee finally allows us an emotional connection to his protagonist.


In the wake of so many faceless, uselessly emotional television specials about September 11th, 25th Hour is a welcome addition to the unending meditation on the event. It’s detached and clear-headed, like most of Lee’s work, so that you’re never distracted or overwhelmed by tacky sentiment. It also fails to arrive at a concrete point, choosing to declare a draw instead of an outright winner.



Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader:

25th Hour is Lee’s best feature since Do the Right Thing, and part of what’s so impressive about it is the way it gets us to think as well as feel — about things we’re almost never asked to consider, such as what it means to send drug dealers to prison. I suspect one reason this country has more than two million people in prison–we have the second-highest incarceration rate in the world, after Russia — is that the sort of people who wind up there, why they do, and what happens to them inside, are all things we don’t really want to think about. I’ve heard some people object to a film asking us to think — and therefore care — about what happens to a drug dealer in prison. But would they also object to being asked to care about the people who do care about him? And if we do care about Naturelle, James, Jake, and Frank, how can we not care about Monty? […]


Thinking about a dog being beaten, about a drug dealer going to prison, about a drug dealer not going to prison, doesn’t require us to solve a puzzle, to come up with some bright solution. It just means thinking about what happens in our world and theirs — which are really the same world. And as Lee shows us, feeling our way into that world is another way of thinking about it.


G. Allen Johnson for Film Threat:

The main point of “25th Hour” is that we all have our own personal 9/11′s — our own personal Enrons. There is a point in each of our lives where we’ve taken a wrong turn and then gone too far. Francis knows that sooner or later, the bottom will fall out unless he changes his ways. Jakob knows it is wrong to lust after a 16-year-old girl, and Naturelle must deal with her own demons — she knew what her boyfriend did for cash, and because she benefited from it, she said nothing.


What’s beautiful about “25th Hour,” however, is it isn’t just elegiac in tone. The feeling at the end is different than the angry confusion felt as the end credits rolled in “Do the Right Thing.” There is anger, there is frustration, there is a hard edge. But there is also an inner message of hope and redemption, a love/hate poem — and mostly love — to New York, and also, America itself.



Roger Ebert:

The film avoids crime-movie cliches. It’s about the time remaining. Lee reflects Monty’s acute awareness of this with scenes of startling inventiveness, one an angry monologue delivered to a mirror, another a shared fantasy as his father (Brian Cox) drives him to prison. Too many movies now require their expensive stars to be onscreen in almost every frame. “The 25th Hour” is enriched by supporting performances, notably by Philip Seymour Hoffman as a pudgy English teacher, not accustomed to drinking, who makes a devastating mistake involving appearance and reality. Spike Lee writes eloquently with his camera in strategies that are anything but conventional.


The Onion AV Club:

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, filmmakers were rushing to digitally blot out any evidence that the Twin Towers ever existed on the New York skyline. Not Spike Lee. New York is his town, and he alone was committed to documenting it truthfully and poignantly, as an event that touched everyone’s lives in that specific time and place and should not be papered over. That sense of profound loss dovetails beautifully with David Benioff’s story of a convicted New York drug dealer (Edward Norton) spending his final day of freedom before serving a seven-year sentence. Lee connects his regret over the life he’s led—compounded by the realization that the world will keep turning without him—with the vibrancy and resilience of the wounded city he at one point professes to hate, but loves with bone-deep transparency.


A.O. Scott again, for NPR:

“25th Hour” is still one of the very best 9/11 movies. It’s not directly about the 9/11 attacks, but it takes place in New York just after them, and it evokes the mood of that moment with such uncanny specificity. I think that’s really another one that years from now people will be coming back to when they look at this decade.


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