Director: Spike Lee (USA). Year of Release: 2003
New York, late at night. A yellow car stops. The car’s driver wants to attend an injured dog at the side of the road. It is in such a bad state – alongside its injuries it is covered in cigarette burns – that at first he’s not sure whether to kill it to put it out of its misery. The car’s passenger, a Ukrainian, reminds the driver that they’re supposed to be in a hurry, that people are waiting for them. The driver ignores these please, putting the dog into the car boot and taking it to a vet.
It’s a nothing scene, whose main dramatic purpose is to tell us that the driver – Monty – is basically a good guy, even after we learn that he’s about to be sent down for seven years for dealing Class A drugs. The film follows Monty’s last day before he hands himself into prison, as he spends his remaining time with his girlfriend Naturelle, his two oldest friends Jacob and Frank, and his dad.
Jacob is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman at his most Philip Seymour Hoffman. He is slightly dishevelled, wearing a tie, jeans and a NY baseball caps. He teaches at the local college and is a little disturbed by the feelings that he has for Mary, one of his 17-year old students. He’d love to act on his desires for her, but that would be both immoral and illegal.
Frank is a less conflicted – and less interesting – character. He is a Master of the Universe, working for a big Wall Street firm. We see him ignoring his boss’s direct orders so that he can land a multi-million dollar deal. I think we’re supposed to be in awe of Frank. To me, he’s a bit of a dick, but as he and Jacob have known Monty since they were children, you see why he’s there.
As the evening proceeds, Monty gets sullen with Naturelle, then goes clubbing with Jacob and Frank. The club is owned by a Russian gangster for whom Monty has dealt, so they get a VIP table. Outside the club, they bump into Jacob’s student, who tags along. This both delights and scares Jacob, who is not holding his drink well. Not much else happens, but not much needs to happen. Forced into a situation of intense desperation, the cast interact as time slowly runs out for Monty.
I did find that 25th Hour works better as a drama than as a metaphor. Released in 2002, the film is imbued with 9/11. “Osama Bin Laden: Wanted Dead or Alive” hang on various walls, Frank has a flat looking down on Ground Zero, and Monty’s father is an ex-fireman who runs a pub frequented by firemen and hangs a Stars and Stripes flag on his car.
Every couple of minutes you have a feeling of someone digging you in the ribs, to tell you that you are watching something very profound, about the State of the Nation. But what is this message exactly? That after 9/11, New York, and New Yorkers, were sad and a little disorientated? Maybe, but what’s the consequence of this? Does this mean that US imperialism needs to take a serious look at what it’s become, or that we must Make America Great Again?
I get the feeling that we’re reliving the controversy around Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”, This should have been clearly a song which was protesting against too much patriotism, but it was so bombastic and ambiguous that right-wingers adopted it as their anthem. Now I’m sure that director Spike Lee cares little for Amerikkka, but the amount of post-bombing flag waving sours the mood somewhat.
Nowhere is this (IMHO) unhelpful ambiguity more obvious than in a monologue by Monty half way through the film. Alone in a club toilet he polemicizes, first against most racial groups, then against himself. It is a powerful performance from Norton, but what is it’s dramatic meaning? We are still encouraged to sympathize with Monty. The critics loved this scene, but I think they would have been much more worried by it, if the director were someone with less impeccable anti-racist credentials.
I think that this is a film that is less good, the more you look into it (problem solved: don’t look into it too deeply). Viewed on the surface, it is a solid film, with great acting performances all round. As Monty, Edward Norton was still in his pomp following American History X and Fight Club, and you’ll always get a good performance from Seymour Hoffman. And Anna Paquin as Mary shows that she’s more than just the Girl from The Piano.
In all, this is probably the least Spike Lee-like film that Lee has created. This has its strengths and weaknesses. It is great that he’s proved himself able to step out of the ghetto created for his films, and shown himself once more to be an accomplished film maker. But part of you is still calling out to him to play some of the old songs.