NOTE: Read Cinema Gotham's interview with director Spike Lee.
THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
Spike Lee's finest films have stretched beyond the pigeon hole of "black" stories that critics have reduced him to. It's not so much that focusing on one set of subjects marks a weak filmmaker but rather that Lee's willingness to broaden his reach - and his ability to succeed - shows him to be daring.
Some stupidly called 25th Hour Lee's "white" movie but in actuality it's one of his most New York movies. He's often created ensemble pieces with real diversity - diversity of character and motivation. The perfect example was always Do The Right Thing, his finest film and the one with the most complex moral code. 25th Hour is like "Son of Do The Right Thing." The moral spread over the course of the six main characters is stunning when compared to the slack characterizations in most films today.
Monty Brogan (Ed Norton) is the drug dealer who's luck finally ran out. Frank Slaughtery (Barry Pepper) is the successful financial adviser who sees morality as clear cut as long as it agrees with his own views. Jacob Elinsky (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a soft, conflicted teacher with eyes for an underage student. Mary D'Annuzio (Anna Paquin) is his flirtatious, confused, contradictory student. Monty's father James (the outstanding Brian Cox) is a former alcoholic with a tremendous amount of anger directed at himself. Only Monty's girlfriend Naturelle Rivera (Rosario Dawson) is somewhat underwritten, although that might only be because she spends much of the film under a bit of suspicion, mysterious.
The story concerns the final hours of Monty's freedom, as he prepares to report for a seven year sentence in prison. There's the cinematically unimportant issue of who turned Monty in to the police to solve but more importantly there's the issue of Monty's soul. Lee takes his time allowing Monty to wander the streets of the city or talk to himself in the mirror. The film has a mournful quality, reflected in Norton's subdued performance, Terence Blanchard's dirge-like score and Rodrigo Prieto's dark cinematography. The whole thing feels like a eulogy for a man that knows he is dying. Even when his friends assure him that they'll be there for his release, Monty knows that seven years behind bars is basically the end of his life. Something Lee does that adds layers to the film's moral complexity is to both allow Monty's guilt to be inarguable - no one ever tries to make the point that Monty got a raw deal - while still protesting the extreme nature of New York's Rockefeller drug laws. One scene in particular details for those who may not know how these laws help lock up non-violent offenders for very long prison terms, certainly out of proportion with other more immediately threatening criminals.
But all this glumness serves a point. 25th Hour, after all, is the first serious narrative film made by a major filmmaker to directly address the terrorist attacks of September 11th. This offers a thematic comparison to Monty's dilemma while also adding the kind of contradictory complexity to the film that Lee often revels in. After all, Monty can lament his lack of a future but on some level he knows he deserves it, unlike victims of terrorism. Still, the sense of mourning that Monty feels is analogous to the feeling of living in New York post-attacks. His walks through the street feel similar to the wandering urge many New Yorkers experienced in late 2001. His "F-U" monolog (probably the scene most commented on) brims with the contradictory emotions that all New Yorkers feel. He's also filled with self-doubt and anger, as are many of the other characters. These are wounded people and while they hide behind various masks (cool insider, sarcastic funny guy, sexy seductress) they still feel real and real messed-up.
25th Hour is one of Lee's rare films made from someone else's script, in this case David Benioff's reworking of his own novel. It's easy to see how the director was attracted the material. It has the loose street vibe that his own work often achieves but it also maintains an allegorical quality: It's unreal reality, where the natural dialog and realistic characters do say something beyond their surroundings. Coupled with the plethora of fine performances and thoughtful subject matter, this is Lee's finest work in years. Other than Do The Right Thing Lee's best work operates on a broader pallette: The epic Malcom X or the gritty street opera Clockers. Lately his work has contained interesting elements, like He Got Game, Summer of Sam and Bamboozled, films filled with interesting ideas and intriguing set-pieces that ultimately didn't quite gel or had ugly sides that held them back.
Perhaps it was the rejuvenating quality of Benioff's script, a shot of fresh blood, that inspired him to pull back some of the excesses and concentrate on character, mood and place. When they first came out I saw Gangs of New York and 25th Hour as bookends: Portraits of the city leading up to and following 9/11. I think 25th Hour, which has been sadly underappreciated (as have it's provocative score, strong cast and sharp script) still holds up to that position. It's an ode to a city in pain and to people feeling loss. It doesn't weigh down with self-pity but it does manage to explore it and for that balance Lee shows that he's truly a grown-up filmmaker.
The anamorphic picture is of a very high quality, handling Lee and Prieto's sophisticated imagery well. The film switches from extreme darkness to blue-tinted club scenes to warm natural light constantly and the transfer handles it all with ease. There are scenes with some extra visible grain - built in to the cinematography - and there are moments with a touch of edge enhancement visible. But for a challenging transfer this one was handled with skill.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 score is quite effective. While the film is heavy on the dialog, music does play a key role and the entire spectrum is well-used here. The surrounds are used nicely for Blanchard's textured and challenging score. Lee's films sometimes allow music to overwhelm important scenes but this is one instance where the score fits perfectly while still making a statement of its own.
There is a nice selection of extras. Foremost are two separate commentary tracks, one from Benioff and one from Lee. Benioff's is quite interesting as he discusses the influences that helped create the novel and the process of watching it move from page to screen. Lee is his usual slow-talking self but he does discuss a lot of interesting topics, from his on-set experience to his thoughts on New York and 9/11 to his plan to get Paul Newman to autograph a Cool Hand Luke poster featured prominently in the film. As a special treat for DVDTalk fans, about 42 minutes into Lee's commentary he relates a tidbit of trivia that he first learned from yours truly during an interview for Cinema Gotham.
Another big bonus is a program called "The Evolution of an American Filmmaker" which contains interviews with a number of Lee's past collaborators, including Denzel Washington, Ossie Davis, Halle Berry and Martin Scorsese (who produced Clockers). It's a fine biography that leads up to 25th Hour and includes footage from Lee's notorious "tube socks" teaser trailer for his debut film She's Gotta Have It.
Another interesting feature is a collection of deleted scenes. Some, like Anna Paquin recreating a Shakespearean death scene could easily have made the cut while others, like a showy montage of every character describing "sway" (what others might call "juice"), are better left out. Lee has shown here an ability to see when something isn't working and remove it.
A montage of footage of the Ground Zero recovery effort (some of which appears in the film) is also included, accompanied by Blanchard's score. This is a powerful sequence and makes for a fine short film itself.
25th Hour is a mature film that allows for the complexities and idiosyncracies of life. The characters don't have it all figured out and they make lots of mistakes. Their mistakes, however, have consequences and that's where the film finds its real gravity. Unfairly ignored by audiences, this is serious, challenging filmmaking and this fine DVD should allow it a second life.