25th Hour is a below average script that almost became an above average film because of its casting. Then, 25th Hour captured the minds of America’s film critics because it was one of the first movies after the events of September 11, 2001 to visually depict the urban scar ground zero became for the next 13 years.
25th Hour tells the story of Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) and his last twenty-four hours before he goes to prison for selling drugs. He visits his old high school where Jacob (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) now teaches English and pines for a 17 year old high school student (Anna Paquin). His criminal contacts arrange a party for him at a club in New York City. Jacob and Monty’s other friend, Frank (Barry Pepper) attends. So does Monty’s girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson). To the extent that this movie contains a plot, it concerns whether and how Monty can avoid being raped in prison. Occasionally people opine about whether Naturelle turned Monty in to the authorities, but it’s mostly the prison rape discussions.
I don’t mean to make light of prison rape. It’s a real problem. It would make a fine topic for a movie to treat with intelligence. Unfortunately, David Benioff’s script approaches this topic with all the finesse of a ninth grader in the high school gym locker room. He paints us a surprisingly facile look at a man’s last twenty-four hours of freedom. Then again, it’s probably all you can expect from the man who penned X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
Most of the film centers on Monty, Jacob, and Frank, three men who don’t seem to have outgrown high school. These three men are disgusting slobs. Frank’s manners are an atrocious parody of the jerk boyfriend from the beginning of a rom com. Jacob’s taste in women hasn’t changed since he was a junior in high school so he’s still pining after those pretty young things, and Monty’s no better seeing as he picked up Naturelle when she was still in high school. These three men worry about prison mostly because it is the place where rape happens, but they're less than a stone’s throw from being statutory rapists themselves. If Benioff had a point to make about that, he forgot to actually make it.
Reviewers at the time, and again in their best of the decade lists, gave Spike Lee and 25th Hour a lot of credit for “weaving the scars of 9/11 into the film.” I guess that’s true, if you count dumping long establishing shots of the irreparably damaged skyline and work crews at ground zero into the movie as “weaving the scars of 9/11 into the film.” There is no thematic connection between 9/11 and Monty's story that I can discern.
I would give 25th Hour a worse rating, but the cast comes close to nearly salvaging 25th Hour on several occasions. Norton and Dawson have real chemistry. The flashbacks to their romance are great. Hoffman and Pepper do solid work in scenes where they criticize each other’s naïveté and cynicism by turns. Norton proves that he can monologue into a mirror just as well as anybody who isn’t named Robert De Niro has a right to, and Brian Cox, portraying Monty’s father, ends the movie with a surprisingly touching and emotional last few minutes that these characters do not deserve.
Why did Spike Lee choose this material? A couple of reasons. First, it provided a great opportunity to criticize the war on drugs. That's fine. I think there are legitimate critiques of America's drug policy. I think honorable people can disagree about whether or not to criminalize drugs or to find another way to regulate the use of drugs from something like a public health perspective. That said, Monty is a bad man. He is actually trafficking drugs. He is profiting off of other people's misery. He deserves to be punished, and seven years in prison doesn't seem that outrageous. How else can you punish drug dealers? Probation? Good idea, I'm sure Monty would hate having to hang out in his lavish uptown apartment with his beautiful girlfriend and tons of money. The second thing that I think attracted Lee to this project was the scene where Monty unleashes a monologue into the mirror. The dialogue here could be from any of Spike Lee's movies. Benioff was probably inspired in part by Spike Lee's filmography when he wrote that scene in his novel.
I didn’t like 25th Hour very much. I like it less the more that I think of it. I started this review giving it 3.5 stars and slowly knocked a star and a half off of it as I put my thoughts into words. That said, even though I didn’t like the movie, a lot of people did. Four critics put it on the best of the decade list. I’ll bet not one of them has watched it since 2002 though.
25th Hour finds itself on this list because 4 of the 37 reviewers listed it among their top ten films of the decade. It might be awhile before the next review, because I need to find a copy of In the Mood for Love.
From Out in the Void