Spike Lee has always been a divisive filmmaker. His body of work has often examined hot-button political issues in provocative ways, and by and large, nobody does it better. Even setting aside his body of work, Lee has often leaned into his persona in public. What often gets lost in the controversy and conversation this generates is whether he’s any good at film-making. For this writer, the answer is enthusiastically affirmative. Lee’s career has been a pretty terrific batting average of challenging, exciting, and soulful films, genre-hopping from biopic (Malcolm X) to commercial thriller (Inside Man) to films that act more like a mirror of our current world (Do The Right Thing, Chi-Raq).
For my money though, the most unheralded film of his career is the 2002 drama 25th Hour. As a film, it’s a somber and complex examination of how one man’s decisions ripple and affect the people he loves. Of course, this being a Spike Lee joint, there’s room for politics, and it’s some of his most subtle and mature work to date. But that does not mean this is Spike Lite: Lee characteristically infuses the film with a style that feels natural, but consistently remains a technical marvel.
Adapted by David Benioff (one of the men behind the Game of Thrones TV series) from his own novel, 25th Hour revolves around the last full day of freedom for Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) before he goes to prison for seven years after being pinched for dealing drugs. Throughout its run-time, the film moves from the present to the past, illustrating the road that brought us here, and the effects it has all had on Monty’s friends (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper) his father (Brian Cox), and his girlfriend (Rosario Dawson).
Norton is reliably excellent in the role, adding depth to a role that in lesser hands could have been far too melodramatic. It’s a largely internal performance, save for the famous “fuck you” scene, in which Monty puts New York and all its many inhabitants on blast. Monty is clear-eyed; like Icarus, he knows that he flew too close for too long, and that makes it all seem to hurt more. In a deleted scene, Monty explains that it wasn’t the money or the cars he was after. He enjoyed those things, sure, but what he was after was a feeling. What he was after was sway. Sway means different things to different people, but to put it in simpler terms, it’s the cool of knowing you can have and do anything you want, anytime.
It’s difficult to shake the notion of sway when considering the larger thematic construction. The film was released just 15 months after the 9/11 tragedy, and there is an unmistakable melancholy that hangs over the film. America, and in particular NYC, were still reeling. The notion of sway is a reflection of us; it’s essentially a stand-in for the American Dream, one that was shattered in 2001. Much to the film’s credit, this notion doesn’t stand out in an exploitative way; instead, it’s simply there lingering in the shadows, an itch that can’t be scratched.* Like Monty, NYC (and by extension, the rest of us) are living in a new world. Everything that came before has been irrevocably stripped away, no matter what happens next. There are some who believe that the film itself is an allegory for 9/11, and for this writer, there is some support of that reading. Spike has always been a New Yorker at heart, and it was only natural that he would incorporate its greatest tragedy into film. Monty’s circumstances may be self-inflicted, even deserved, but the thematic intent is the same: how do you carry on after the world as you knew it has ended?
Populated by a reliable roster, the supporting cast is uniformly excellent. The late great Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays Jacob, a shy high school teacher grappling with an infatuation of a student (Anna Pacquin). Hoffman excelled at playing damn near anything he wanted, and this was no exception. Jacob is a walking nerve, all wounded stuttering and naivete. Barry Pepper (please get this man some Tarantino level comeback casting) plays Frank, who is Jacob’s opposite in nearly every way. Frank is a Wall Street suit, cocksure, but ultimately fueled by his fear of the emptiness inside of him. Through the two men, we learn much about Monty, and how in their way all of his loved ones were complicit in the way it’s all ending. Rosario Dawson plays Monty’s girlfriend, Naturelle, and in this writer’s opinion, she’s never been better. Naturelle gets the most screen time next to Monty, and Dawson sells the loyalty and genuine love she feels for him as we watch the trajectory of their relationship play out. The sparks don’t have the same St. Elmo’s Fire flash as other events in the film, but they don’t need to. This relationship is lived in, and earned. The film spools out the unspoken conflict between the two; each wondering how much guilt and how much blame there is to place at the other’s feet. Brian Cox has the most genuinely supporting part as Monty’s father, James, though he is responsible for some of the film’s most tender moments, particularly the “what if” monologue that plays across the film’s final moments.
For each of them, there is the question of what will happen next. Jacob believes that things will go back to the way they always were; Frank expresses doubt that he will ever see Monty again (despite how desperately we see he does not want this to be true), and Naturelle insists that love is love, fuck the sway and the lost time, the only thing that matters is their bond. In their quietest moments though, each of them indicate that deep down they know. After one more night, it’s all over. Monty goes through these final motions as a man who owes a debt of obligation to his loved ones. There is little joy for him in this last hurrah. For Monty, it’s been over for some time now.
Throughout the course of the film, there are echoes of consequential choices being made, paths that time will simply not allow the players to sustain. It’s for this reason that the ending is so brilliant. At best, it’s a fantasy to console a man whose life is effectively ending. Thematically, it is a final exclamation mark about how too often the choices that led to this were made too long ago. To try and untangle the mess now would be to undo everything, good and bad alike, and it’s simply too late.** Monty is a man in a trance, one that must inevitably be broken. There is no 25th hour. The future is the same as it always was, right ahead of us.
** Through this lens, it is easy to see the intent of the film taking on 9/11.