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July 1, 2003

25th Hour

Last night, I watched Spike Lee's latest film, 25th Hour, starring Edward Norton as a New York City drug dealer, Monty, who has just been convicted and faces seven years in prison. The film focuses on his last day of freedom, and I found it to be a very thoughtful, introspective film. I think what I found to be most powerful was the "elegiac tone" of the film (Ebert's review is quite good), especially given the post-9/11 context. Monty spends his last day in the city making peace with his friends and family. He returns to his old school to reflect on some of his bad decisions. He makes several attempts to determine who informed on him to the police, but his movements lack focus and direction (Ebert even suggests the film is "plotless," which I read as a compliment--more on that later).

The film briefly uses Ground Zero during one scene in which Monty's longtime friends, Francis, a hotshot Wall Street investor, and Barry, a liberal school teacher, are talking in Francis's apartment, which overlooks the scarred space where the World Trade Center towers once stood, the sense of loss permeating the scene. Constant reminders of September 11 (American flags draped from fire escapes, shrines to firefighters in local bars) also fill the mise en scene, and Monty's story provides Lee with a way of understanding this sense of loss. Francis's attempts to bury himself in his work are seen as hollow gestures; despite his success as an investor, he is unsatisfied. Similarly Barry's faith in education and his rejection of his parents' wealth fails to provide any sort of fulfillment as his students don't respect him. Through these characters, Lee asks some powerful questions about the current situation in New York and the U.S.

One of the most powerful sequences, to my mind is a monologue Monty delivers in front of a restroom mirror, expressing hatred for many of New York's ethnic and economic groups. After seeing the words "Fuck You" scribbled on a mirror, Monte tries to rub the words out (a la Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye). He then launches into a diatribe against many of New York's ethnic groups. The scene recalls, as Ebert points out, similar sequences in Lee's 1989 film, Do the Right Thing. Through these monologues, both films capture some of the tremendous conflicts associated with life in New York (DTRT was Lee's intervention into several cases of police brutality in the late 1980s).

The mirror sequence is answered later in the film when Monty's father (played by the great character actor, Brian Cox) is driving him to prison and we see Monty imagining representatives of these ethnic groups waving goodbye, implying a wish for redemption for himself and for the city that is so visibly scarred. The father, who is also mourning his wife's death) later imagines turning West, crossing Pennsylvania and dropping his son off in Middle America (with a capital M.A.) where Monty makes a new life for himself, creating a whole new identity, getting by on his intelligence and charm, and eventually marrying his Puerto Rian girlfriend. They have a family, and as an old man, Monty tells his children his tale of redemption and renewal (this scene is beautifully filmed with Monty and his family all wearing white/off-white clothing). But, both men know this is a fantasy; the American dream doesn't hold anymore, not for Monty. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian is critical of "the final gooey sequence," calling the film "turgid" and "bombastic," but given the context of the scene, I read it as profoundly sad, mourning a New York City (and a country) that has been forever altered by the terrorist attacks (and I think that Lee is very careful to avoid taking any simple position on these events).

I don't think the film simply equates the destruction in Monty's life with the destruction of New York, as the Salon reviewer suggests, and I think the film is wise to avoid the trap of being "about" 9/11. Instead, it seems to be using Monty's story to tackle the complicated questions about how to proceed after such an emotionally scarring event. In this sense, the film reminds me of Deleuze's discussion of the crisis in the action-image, when any action a character might take appears incapable of changing his or her circumstances (the hopeless search for the stolen bicycle in The Bicycle Thief; the characters' meaningless journeys in Breathless), and I think Lee's film captures this particular crisis in a powerful way. Thus, Monty's lack of purpose, his restlessness, and his unfocused journeys through the city, all gesture toward this inability to respond to all of the crises that faced New York after September 11.

I've really struggled with this review (more so than most of my posts), but this film has challenged me. It's certainly not a perfect film, but I think it is pretty compliated in some interesting ways.

Posted by chuck at July 1, 2003 11:29 PM

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Nice review, Chuck. I think this is on of the best movies I've seen in a long, long time. Very moving, and beautifully filmed.

I like your observation in the last paragraph regarding Monty's inability to change his circumstances. He does, however, have the option of trying to lose himself in middle America, with the aid of his father. He chooses not to take this option. Do you think it's because what's wrong with his life would not be fixed by doing this?

Posted by: George at July 1, 2003 11:57 PM

That's my reading of it. That's why I think those scenes are so heavily coded as fantasy. All of his children are beautifully multi-ethnic; they are all wearing the off-white clothing, which makes them appear almost angelic. It's a pretty clear parody of the American Dream (in fact it reminded me of the parody of The Dream at the end of Raising Arizona). There's no real solution, as Francis keeps insisting, when he suggests that Monty will never survive in prison.

But I think the failure of this dream for Monty should signal The Dream's failure more broadly (hence his father's financial struggles, Francis's slow-burning bitterness, and Barry's sexual fantasies). Ebert's references to corporate crime (even though I think he is guilty of over-reading the film) are somewhat relevant here. I really do believe that Hour is tapping into a certain kind of disillusionment. I'm glad you recommended the film to me.

Posted by: chuck at July 2, 2003 12:09 AM

Um conselho: traduzam as páginas melhor...!!

Posted by: Catarina at January 21, 2004 1:20 PM

Wonderful review. I stumbled on it because today being the 5th anniversary of 9/11 had me thinking about this film and how effective it was in capturing the tone of a post 9/11 NYC.

Posted by: misstraceynolan at September 11, 2006 3:32 PM

Thank you. I still admire 25th Hour quite a bit. Maybe I'll sit down and watch it again soon.

Posted by: Chuck at September 11, 2006 3:58 PM

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