Meant to upload this when BlacKkKlansman was released late last summer, but honoring Lee’s long-delayed, much-deserved nomination for Best Director at the Academy Awards (even for a film I wasn’t crazy about) seems as good a reason to post this as any!
On the surface, Spike Lee’s 25th Hour vibrates with a haunted, hushed sense of gloom that begets genuine introspection, a sensibility of almost Bressonian sangfroid which thoroughly and contrapuntally rejects the bristling, sharply corrugated kinetic energy of Lee’s most famous films, hot and sweaty works that might melt the wounded 25th Hour on contact. But this most guarded film, by Lee standards, radiates its own intensity, a kind which, through its comparative silences, rejects the usual charge that Lee’s orientation is all bluster hawking snake-oil. Even Lee’s most scrambled, inelegant films have an internal coherence, and, conversely, the ostensibly calm and collected – even too conspicuously composed – 25th Hour only seems sure of itself; its comparative restraint belies a severe inner anxiety about both the value of personal self-observation in the face of consequence and the relationship between self and the wider nation.
Because, as Lee (never the most muted of filmmakers) makes apparent from the get-go, his protagonist’s ostensible assurance, inescapably masking apprehension, in turn signals, or at least rhymes with, director Spike Lee wrestling to cope with a now-lesioned New York after 9/11 in this, his more direct but also knottiest tribute to his home-city ever. Like any Lee film, it’s more sinuous than subtle when it comes to exorcising the directors demons, and the film’s meditations on mourning the phantom of the past – not to mention the dialectics of personal and national, private and political tragedy – are immediately apparent in the opening credits, which hover over the absent World Trade Center, spectrally approximated as an after-image in the form of the “Tribute in Light” commemoration which here evokes not triumph but the Towers as a kind of phantom-limb.
Throughout 25th Hour, New York City’s grief figures in as a kind of structuring absence hovering in the background, lurking in the shadows, as though always channeled into the characters even when it does not directly demarcate their personal narratives, or even necessarily alter their trajectories. New York materializes more as a shiver, a lingering phantom-pain, a flicker of doubt and disquiet that manifests in unexpected, elusive, metaphorical ways. The relationship between the two levels – the plight of its protagonist and the city he ever-tenuously calls home – is certainly ambiguous, sometimes non-committal on Lee’s part, as though the director can’t exactly explain what terms conjoin Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) with New York City. The blessedly simple situation is that drug seller Monty is arrested by the DEA and given 25 hours before he has to report to the detention center for seven years, an imminent sentence which prompts him to invite his best friends, Wall Street broker Frank Slaughtery (Barry Pepper) and high school teacher Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and Monty’s girlfriend Naturelle Riviera (Rosario Dawson) out for one final night of camaraderie, revelation, and wound-nursing, and anger-nurturing.
But another term for the contours of the relationship which connects Monty with an agitated nation might be ambivalent. Or fluid. Even porous. At times, Monty and his 25-hour vigil become reluctant avatars of a national wake, approximating walking specters of New York primed for a metaphorical prison sentence. At others, Monty almost seems wreathed in self-conscious reflection, as though a martyr for the sins of a nation forced to confront its past. Still at others, the trepidation blanketing the city – half-present, as though the narrative’s ghost – seems to dwarf Monty and the others entirely, as though Lee is meditating not on Monty’s cipher-status for New York but his inadequacy – especially as a white man – for truly serving as a totem to a city which clearly extends beyond his reach. Each character primed with unrequited desire to connect both with one another, with others, and with a city that seems to alienate them even as they wax romantically about their connection to it, Lee’s film then walks its characters through a haunted reunion which then turns into a eulogy.
The film Lee constructs out of this duality between city and individual is itself dualistic: both allegorical and realistic, naturalist and stylized, sensitive and hot-headed, dazed and truly perceptive. And it’s vigorously textured, to boot. Cinematographer Rodrigo Pietro conjures the slightly fried, agitated grain of a post 9/11 world without any obvious affected stylization, thereby evoking the nervous tendrils of a then-cataclysmic moment in a national consciousness (perhaps because it revealed the lack of any one national consciousness, or the fungibility of it, or the fracture of it). And although it’s sometimes saturated in gloom, the aura of the film is more free-floating, achieving a kind of pensive grace through a casual, conversational lightness, often courtesy of editor Barry Alexander Brown’s elliptical edits which allow scenes to flow and float, as if allowing the scenes to waft out into the ether. Before they suddenly lurch forward, as if the film is trapped in a fervent search for lost time throughout, jumping impressionistically between moments associatively and contributing to a sense of a world leeching away from us and the characters as they scour the scenes – and each other – for repentance through self-reflection.
The whole film basks in this contemplative shroud in this manner, an uncharacteristically frigid and mournful cloak for the usually hot-tempered, expressionistic, and voluptuously cinematic Lee. But 25th Hour weaves its own more silently visceral and stylistic spell around us, cold on the surface, but ultimately and finally warming in the company it keeps between admittedly somewhat alienated friends and the guilt and doubt it forces Monty and others to process. When Lee conjures a speculative emancipation late in the film, one possible escape for Monty, it’s not a break so much as a poetic extension of the implicit conundrum – what escape even means – percolating throughout the film. Escape, in the more literal sense, seems only palliative in light of the vigorous soul-searching workout Lee’s film provides, one which aligns it more evocatively with the conscious-scouring, transcendental works of Dreyer or Pasolini, or more commonly associated with Lee’s NYC compatriot Martin Scorsese, whose most famous films were written by Paul Schrader, perhaps the most famous student of what he called the transcendental mode of those European masters of the sublime.
Which is to say: while other films would relish the opportunity to flex their cinematic muscles tracing a path for Monty toward freedom (making the final vision of escape essentially heroic in nature), Lee’s film charts a route where the meaning of that term, “freedom”, is uncertain. David Benioff’s screenplay, adapted from his own book, relishes in the kind of psychological ennui Schrader might have equipped Scorsese with, and rather than enlivening or kindling what amounts to an existential limbo with a contrapuntal kineticism that doesn’t stoke anything more than the most superficial textures and thus fades away, Lee’s meditative style lingers in the throat. A subtle stupor permeates throughout the film, an aura of guilt that is less paranoiac – a crutch any other film might have rested on – than atoning, if not actually absolving. Rather than tightening the screws toward eventual comeuppance or absolution, Lee allows it all to stew and stir, scouring for wrinkles in what amounts to a dissociative fugue of a film: seemingly aimless, often wayward, and yet accruing the portent of its steadily-mounting stream as the waiting-room forces Monty and others to wrestle with the unstated emotions lingering within their relationships.
Not that it doesn’t lapse into the banally overwrought. Norton, then at the height of his fame, is slightly too Norton-esque, too conspicuously acting the role, and the script’s more carelessly grand gestures – a self-consciously bravura all-out-verbal-assault by Monty in front of a mirror – don’t benefit his learned technique. That aforementioned scene, the film’s most famous, is obviously meant to expel the weight of his consciousness, affording him an easy out by blaming literally every identity he can imagine. Lee is obviously canny enough to recognize how contrived Monty’s exorcism is, the mirror too-clearly drawing us to the self-reflexive nature of the moment, to the fragility of his ego and the implicitly centripetal nature of his ostensibly centrifugal barking, the way in which his unhinged skewerings of everyone are in search of any scapegoat he can find even as they clearly moor him only to himself and his own mistakes. It’s a programmatic moment that too easily tries to sum up the film, a scene ultimately salvaged only because it attunes us to Monty’s performative nature, and the theatrical artifice of his attempts to reach outside of himself in the only fallaciously angry way he can, striving erroneously for calculated catharsis rather than genuine self-reflexivity.
Still, it’s a big, inexact gesture, a slathering, barking-mad slash-and-burn, but it’s not shambolic enough to register as an authentic impulse coming from the film, an effusion meant to animate Monty’s inner demons. It’s too obviously premeditated, too rehearsed. Unless, of course, we accept it as a reminder that Monty, even at his most callously assaultive and unrestrained, won’t allow himself to go unrehearsed. Far more effective, though, is the autumnal mood of loss this eruption displaces, a simmering boil of a film that signals the dislocating benefits of personal inquiry. Maybe this quiet calculation speaks to a work that has been too clearly-drafted to ever reverberate outward with the lashing, shambolic fury of Lee’s Do The Right Thing or the seductive, oneiric allure of Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, or the frazzled poetry of Chi-raq or the truly mutinous Bamboozled, but on slightly more conventional, even programmatic terms, The 25th Hour really commits to its mood of personal and existential repent.
Sure, it’s a little too conspicuous at times, some of its themes ringing too loudly and straining for overdetermined allegorical credulity (as though Monty’s story isn’t worthwhile unless it bears the weight of the nation on its back). But at others, Lee’s film is far humbler, modernist not only because it understands how single characters can embody concepts and ideas but because it considers how a city’s un-expelled emotions, fears, and desires cannot be approximated in a handful of characters, as when Barry and Jacob discuss Monty’s fate in front of a window overlooking the debris of the towers, Terence Blanchard’s melancholy classical motifs searching for meaning amidst the rubble. Rather than maximizing the importance of their dialogue, the contrapuntal image suggests a kind of unresolved dialogue between them and the world, a window onto wider, fuller, and larger concerns and questions that the two men can only motion toward.
Here, and throughout, Lee registers the gap as well as the overlap between the personal and the public. No one is a mere referential, mimetic person, a hieroglyphic figuration primarily valuable only because they signify a type or a concept stapled down for us, the audience, to come to terms with our own existential concerns. Each character in 25th Hour struggles to square their muddy reality with their search for certainty, Monty’s eventually-unfulfilling desire to learn who sold him out to the DEA resonating and rhyming with allusions to national trauma and tragedy (not to mention the desire to blame others, specifically his non-white girlfriend, for crises which resist mono-directional blame). But, perhaps because contriving the characters to serve as signposts for us would succumb to this very simplicity by ensconcing itself in a sanctifying certainty, Lee’s film is not simply a diagnosis of the social status quo where Monty’s struggles map onto wider social conflicts writ-large, flattening the distinctions between these characters as individuals and wider social groups. The film disobeys any such cloying allegorical readings – i.e. the city a mere refraction or reflection of Monty’s internal tragedy – and strives for a higher, more multivalent texture where the city’s loss both embodies and exceeds Monty’s. Which is to say, although the film paradoxically courts both criticisms, the New York location seldom feels either merely ornamental or so singularly purposeful that it sucks any air out of the nested tragedies Lee and Benioff imagine instead.