Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Masterpiece Test: 25th Hour

Year of Release  2003
Country  USA
Length  135 min.
Director  Spike Lee
Screenwriter  David Benioff (adapted from his own novel)
Cinematographer  Rodrigo Prieto
Editor  Barry Alexander Brown
Original Score  Terence Blanchard
Cast  Edward Norton, Rosario Dawson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Brian Cox, Anna Paquin

Beauty  The story of down-on-his-luck drug dealer Monty Brogan (Norton) is punctuated with striking imagery – a long sequence in a nightclub is particularly dazzling – but screenwriter David Benioff and the ensemble cast are responsible for 25th Hour's most elegant moments.  For better or worse, Spike Lee has always been an overreacher, and sometimes he drowns out his films' stories with an overabundance of style.  25th Hour is one of Lee's more well-measured films, but it does exhibit a few of his recurring flaws, such as the nonstop use of Terence Blanchard's score even in scenes that would be better off without any background music.

Strangeness  Lee's in-your-face style can be overbearing, but it is undeniably unique.  Most directors would've filmed Benioff's screenplay in either a purely functional, "filmed radio" style or in a shaky cam verite style.  Both approaches are part of Lee's arsenal, but he boldly adds a number of flashy visual and audio flourishes in places you wouldn't expect.  More importantly, Lee is willing to explore social and political issues that most filmmakers don't even acknowledge.  In the immediate aftermath of September 11th, a number of films set in New York were altered so that the World Trade Center was not visible, even if the films in question had nothing to do with the building.  But the aftermath of 9/11 is explicitly the backdrop of 25th Hour.  The constant reminders of the tragedy make the themes of Benioff's story more resonant, and the fact that Lee goes as far as to feature the devastated Ground Zero in the background of one memorable scene (and also make it the focus of the film's opening credits) really sets 25th Hour apart from any other fictional film made in the early 2000s.

Unity of Form and Subject Matter  25th Hour is not just about the final hours before Monty goes to prison to serve a seven-year sentence.  It's also about Monty's loved ones and their reactions to his predicament.  Monty's girlfriend (Dawson) just wants to spend some time with him before he goes away.  Monty's best friends, a high school teacher (Hoffman) and a Wall Street stockbroker (Pepper), have opposite feelings about his situation, with the former ignoring the problem and looking forward to the day that Monty gets out of prison, and the latter drowning in misery and insisting that their friend won't make it out alive.  Meanwhile, Monty's father (Cox) is hatching a plot to help his son escape his prison sentence.  Although Monty is consistently at the center of 25th Hour, the film's point of view frequently shifts to that of the other characters, who view Monty's predicament in light of their own dashed hopes and ideals.  This constantly shifting focus gives the film a bit of a Rashomon feel, which is to say that the subject of the 25th Hour has less to do with Monty's story than with the conflicted reactions to his situation.

Tradition  In terms of style and content, 25th Hour seems most influenced by the "New Hollywood" cinema of the '70s.  Martin Scorsese's blend of verite naturalism and pulpy expressiveness has always had a clear influence on Lee (unsurprising, since Scorsese was one of his mentors at NYU).  Scorsese's influence is particularly palpable in the scene where the high school teacher and the student he not-so-secretly has a crush on (Paquin) recover from an awkward bathroom embrace, and are filmed as if they are floating in time with the cameras, just like the characters in Mean Streets.  It is perhaps too early to tell whether 25th Hour has had a lasting impact on cinema, but recent films like Blue Valentine feature a similar mix of raw emotion and slick style.

Repeatability  25th Hour certainly deepened for me on a second viewing.  It may not be an artistic landmark like Do the Right Thing (still the definitive statement on race relations in the United States) or the extraordinarily thorough Hurricane Katrina documentary When the Levees Broke, but 25th Hour should nonetheless stand the test of time as cinema's only accurate portrayal of the nation's post-9/11 mindset.

Viewer Engagement  The shifting point of view mentioned above is the key to 25th Hour's success.  Viewers are constantly placed in different characters' shoes, and Benioff's empathetic dialogue, combined with the cast's uniformly excellent performances, make each of the main characters' points of view relatable.  Because each of the characters has a different outlook on Monty's illegal profession, and on whether or not his impending punishment is just, the viewer is constantly invited to ask herself where they stand on these issues.

Morality  Like any good moral film, 25th Hour does not provide easy answers to the questions it raises.  Part of the film's value is that it discusses issues that viewers are not normally asked to think about, and that it gives equal credence to several different opinions about how society should treat drug dealers. Lee and Benioff don't let Monty off the hook for his actions – he has certainly helped a lot of people destroy their lives, as evidenced in an early scene where a desperate, haggard junkie begs Monty for a fix.  But the filmmakers don't ever let us forget that Monty is a human being, either.  And if we don't care about what happens to this self-destructive man, does that mean that we shouldn't care about how his incarceration will affect his loved ones?  Unfortunately, the film's empathy doesn't extend to its minor characters in the way that it does in Do the Right Thing.  The policemen pursuing Monty are one-dimensional harassers, and the Russian mobsters who Monty works for are even more stereotypical.  But the one-note treatment of these supporting characters can only stand out in a film that is otherwise so smart and complicated.

25th Hour fails the Masterpiece Test due to a number of minor flaws, though it remains an important document of its era.

UP NEXT  Ivan Passer's Cutter's Way, a critical favorite that never found an audience.

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