The Two Towers

A boy and his burden: Edward Norton in '25th Hour'
Touchstone Pictures

Spike Lee couldn't make an unremarkable movie if he tried. Still, 25th Hour hasn't a quarter of the heart of Clockers or half the brains of Summer of Sam, to mention only two of the director's grossly undervalued works, both of them directly relevant to the one at hand. Like Summer of Sam, 25th Hour takes place during a traumatic moment in New York City history, is set in an almost entirely Caucasian milieu, and involves the ambivalent feelings of boyhood friends who, as adults, have little in common except a reciprocal sense of loyalty mixed with guilt. As in Clockers, the protagonist is a drug dealer caught in a vise of his own making, with the law bearing down on one side and a murderous mob boss on the other.

Based on the novel of the same name by David Benioff, who also wrote the screenplay, 25th Hour is glued to the original in structure and detail. (It could be that Benioff, who has a terrific ear for the way guys talk, had a movie in mind from the outset.) It's the last day of freedom for Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), sentenced to seven years for drug dealing. Monty is trying to keep his fear and anger in check as he ties up the loose ends in his life: finding a home for Doyle, his mostly pit-bull mutt; reconciling with his dad (Brian Cox); having a final blast with his two best friends, Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Slaughtery (Barry Pepper); and figuring out if his girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), ratted him out to the cops. He's also asking himself whether putting a bullet through his brain or going on the lam would be preferable to seven years of getting fucked up the ass, no metaphor intended.

Questions, questions, questions! Deftly placed, they keep the film moving forward--even through a couple of extended flashbacks--as does Barry Alexander Brown's jittery editing. Brown can turn a series of reverse-angle shots into a rhythmic wonder, the cuts never falling exactly where you expect. Norton's performance is the other propulsive element here. Part weasel, part Renaissance prince, Norton looks like a guy whose cool, eroding from the inside, has become tissue-paper thin. The actor does nothing to make the character more likable than he should be--an amoral heroin dealer who never thought twice about what he was selling or to whom--and, paradoxically, that's what makes us care, just a smidgen, about what happens to him. To err is human, and if the character who errs is devoted to his dog, that buys more than a subway token's worth of sympathy.

Benioff's novel was written in the year 2000. Without altering more than a half-dozen lines of dialogue, Lee turns 25th Hour into a post-9/11 film--the first film that deals unbashedly with the inchoate feelings that New Yorkers live with since the attack. New York has seldom looked more ravishing than in the title sequence. Shot from across the Hudson, the Statue of Liberty and the lower-Manhattan skyline are covered with sparkling gold lights, while, from the former World Trade Center site, two translucent blue columns ascend into the night sky. (The columns of blue light commemorated the first anniversary of the 9/11 attack.) In the next scene, Monty finds Doyle, who has been tossed from a car and is bleeding to death along the East River Drive. Monty is about to shoot the dog to put him out of his misery, but when Doyle goes for Monty's throat, he decides to save him instead. Damaged but willing to fight to the death, and unshakably loyal to the one who rescued him, Doyle has even more weight to bear in the film than in the book, where he was merely Monty's doppelgänger and a metaphor for the city as it has always been. To make him a metaphor for survival after 9/11 is too big a burden even for a "tough little bastard" like Doyle.

Similarly problematic is the scene where Monty's friends, Jacob and Slaughtery, discuss Monty's plight while looking down at Ground Zero from a window in Slaughtery's apartment. The subtext of their conversation--their sense of guilt, anger, and powerlessness at having done nothing to keep their friend from disaster--suggests exactly what New Yorkers feel about 9/11. But then the music swells portentously (Terrence Blanchard's heavy-handed score is the film's near-fatal flaw), the camera zooms in on the emptiness below, and all the subtlety of the scene goes literally out the window.

It may be a sign of Lee's lack of commitment to the characters that the film's set pieces are what remains in memory. In the bathroom of his father's Staten Island bar, Monty looks in the mirror and projects his anger at himself into a litany of fuck yous that spares no ethnicity, race, or class. The monologue is exactly the same as in the novel except for one Lee addition--a fuck you to the Enron crooks, followed by a six-word statement that Norton underplays to devastating effect: "Bush and Cheney knew, they knew." Even when Lee is not on top of his game, he's still our most impassioned political filmmaker.

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