Thursday, December 31, 2009
This Life Came So Close To Never Happening
I think even at the time I knew that I was underrating 25TH HOUR. That probably doesn’t make any sense but sometimes even if you don’t have the biggest response to a film, somewhere in the back of your head you know that this one is going to stick around. Maybe the film just felt too raw at the time, being in many ways an examination of New York and what it had become of it in the months following 9/11. Released at the end of 2002, Spike Lee must have known that people would be resistant to it but he made the film this way regardless and in doing so made what may very well be one of the most valuable films of the decade. I suppose this is the time to make those lists of the best of the year, the best of the aughts. I’m always resistant to making to those things maybe because I’m always worried I’m forgetting something, but like anyone I know that the best film released to theaters over the past ten years was obviously MULHOLLAND DRIVE. Other titles ranking under it would probably include WONDER BOYS, ALMOST FAMOUS, FEMME FATALE, LOST IN TRANSLATION, SIDEWAYS, SHAUN OF THE DEAD, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, BEFORE SUNSET, CHILDREN OF MEN, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES…, ZODIAC, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, THERE WILL BE BLOOD, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. What the hell, put ANCHORMAN on there as well. This is not an official list of any sort, just some names that occurred to me, some films that meant the most to me. But looking back at it now, 25TH HOUR plays as this anomaly, the rare film in this changing world of cinema that increasingly wants to avoid anything having to do with actual reality, that just wanted to pause and take a look around at what was happening for a few moments. It’s as if Spike Lee needed to make these things a part of the film, to get all this on film so the way people were feeling at that point in time would be remembered. And, let it be said, the film received zero Oscar nominations, which now seems particularly shameful. Looking at it again now, it’s just a beautiful piece of work and seemed like on this occasion this is the film that needs to be watched to remember where we’ve been but also to try to move on. I’m not saying that it even belongs on the list, though maybe it does, it just needed to be mentioned before we wrapped everything up. It’s been that kind of decade.
The majority of 25TH HOUR is set over the course of a single day as small time Manhattan drug dealer Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) faces his last twenty-four hours of freedom before having to report for a seven-year prison sentence. As he prepares to spend one final night seeing girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), old friends Frank (Barry Pepper) and Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as well as bar owner father Jimmy Brogan (Brian Cox) Monty tries to come to grips in his own head with what he’s done and the hell he’s about to enter. It’s not just seven years—for some of them it’s going to be forever because it’s obvious that the Monty they’ve always known is never coming back. This is it. And they certainly can’t forget what he did to have this happen since it’s not like he was an innocent man set up, after all. And the heightened emotions of the night results in the heat on their own personal dramas to boil over as well. With a screenplay by David Benioff based on his novel of the same name, 25TH HOUR is an elegy. An elegy for youth, an elegy for living a life where you think there will be no consequences. And an elegy for New York and whatever that great city was going through during the months when this film was in production early in 2002, something which certainly affected a film which had to have been in the preparation stages when 9/11 happened. Any rewrites that took place to incorporate it were most likely minimal and from what I can tell are kept to the scene at Frank’s apartment downtown which chillingly overlooks Ground Zero and a few mentions at the bar that Jimmy Brogan owns. But the memory of that day permeates the characters and entire right from the beautifully shot opening credit sequence to the American flags seen in the frame all throughout, something that is perhaps not spoken of in dialogue for long stretches but it’s always there.
One thing that stands out in the film watching it now is how steady it is the whole way through, how confident it is in taking its time moving through the scenes, pausing as Monty goes for his morning walk with his dog Doyle. No handheld camera nonsense and scenes are allowed to play out in an unhurried fashion as the characters continually absorb what is happening. When making one of their several toasts of the evening, the cute girl bartender says they should come by on Sunday for her birthday party. Everyone becomes quiet. Sunday isn’t going to happen. Every now and then a moment is briefly repeated like a stutter in the editing, making it clear how much these moments are being absorbed by Monty as he tries to remember them. The device is wisely not overused but it certainly has the right effect to get us to pay closer attention. It may take some time to realize that the film isn’t avoiding getting to the plot by spending time with its characters but that this interaction is the plot, building to what happens with them and how their loyalty will be portrayed. With their own lives happening at full throttle at the same time there’s nothing anyone can say to Monty that will make anything better so all they can do for the time being is just to stay by his side.
The expected Spike Lee stylistics are certainly there on occasion (with strikingly gorgeous use of colors throughout courtesy of D.P. Rodrigo Prieto, shot on film. Film!!) from Norton’s memorably profane rant against everything he hates about New York but also throughout the extended nightclub scene where such exaggerations make sense and these points which we expect from the director have rarely been used in as effective a manner. I won’t say this is Lee’s best film but years from now it might be the one I’d choose to see over all the others. The plot strand that is there—the question of whether Naturelle betrayed Monty by ratting him out to the Feds—does figure into things but not as much as you would expect. The crime stuff doesn’t really matter as much as the interaction between these people who love each other and how much it shows it their faces and actions. This level of emotion extends to the heartbreaking theme by Terence Blanchard which haunts the film throughout, acting as its own eulogy as well as a clock ticking down to the final seconds. It’s even snuck into the film during one bar scene as source music continuing that feel in an almost subliminal way—I admit that I’m a sucker for this type of source music usage but it adds something particularly beautiful to the scene.
I have a specific memory of seeing this film at The Grove in January 2003. At a key point late in the film—right as Norton is being driven away—the film broke. The lights came up and it took several minutes for it to start up again. For all I know, some people left since, at this point, it seemed like the story had reached its conclusion. There was no way to know at that point that what up until then had been a very good film would be transformed to a great film by what was to come with its shattering conclusion brought to the finish line by the great Brian Cox. This ending haunted me after I saw it and haunts me even more now nearly seven years later.
The entire cast rises to the occasion, doing some of their best work and the pain in Norton’s every movement is felt more and more as the film goes on. He’s just phenomenal. Hoffman gives one of his best socially awkward portrayals of this character who clearly has no idea how to handle all this and Barry Pepper does some particularly good, layered work getting better as the film goes on, revealing more shadings than just the ‘Gordon Gekko-wannabe’ he comes off as when first introduced. Rosario Dawson delivers some of her strongest work ever here as Naturelle and the beguiling Anna Paquin is terrifically enjoyable as Mary D'Annunzio, one of Jacob’s students who winds up joining the group at their extended nightclub stop. I’ve already said how amazing Brian Cox is here. I may as well say it again. Isiah Whitlock, Jr., who I’ve noticed through the years in New York-based shoots, is particularly good in his nasty way as the DEA Agent who knows that he’s got Monty right where he wants him. Vanessa Ferlito, Butterfly in DEATH PROOF, appears in a flashback as a friend of Naturelle’s who takes off when she realizes who Monty is—that voice of hers is instantly recognizable.
The devastating finale brought tears to my eyes on this viewing and it also reminded me how it is in fact seven years after the film’s original release, the exact amount of time Monty Brogan was due to serve. And in thinking about the character’s own release, I’m finding myself relieved that this miserable, no-good decade where some of the worst things imaginable happened is finally coming to a close. Maybe the idea of his release actually gets me to look forward with a kind of anticipation. The emotion delivered by Bruce Springsteen as the powerful song “The Fuse” plays over the end credits makes couldn’t feel more right at the end of this film about regret, about feeling like you blew it in life. And as I think about this sadness I remember a small beat near the end involving Phillip Seymour Hoffman that gives me more hope than any bogus feel-good movie ever could. I’ll just remember that moment, along with the knowledge that those seven years since the story of 25TH HOUR are now up and maybe in this life that really is happening there might actually be something good found in the first half of the twenty-first century. And on that note, Happy New Year.