25th Hour Movie Review

If you were to write a screenplay about a drug dealer who has just 24 hours of freedom left before he begins a seven-year prison sentence, what would you have him do? Repent? Fashion an elaborate escape? Have plenty of sex? That's probably why you haven't authored any Oscar-quality screenplays lately. Writer David Benioff, on the other hand, is likely to see a little golden statuette up close next year for his work on 25th Hour, a remarkable new film based on his novel of the same name.

Neither tearjerker nor suspenseful crime drama, 25th Hour is extraordinary in that it avoids all the clichés that such a premise so often invites. It is instead a carefully focused character study about a charismatic but condemned man who must come to grips with his sentence before morning. Edward Norton plays Montgomery Brogan, the felon in question. He spends his last free hours visiting his father (Brian Cox) and attending a going away party in his honor at a New York nightclub. In tow are his girlfriend (Rosario Dawson) and his two childhood pals, Frank (Barry Pepper) and Jakob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) -- the latter of which is so perfectly cast that you can't help but chuckle the first time you see Hoffman give his usual dyspeptic sneer, signaling that he is disgusted not only with his high school English students but essentially the entire outcome of his life.

While there is a thin, action-based plot involving Monty's Russian suppliers who want to meet him at the party, the movie's real strength comes from the dialog between Monty's friends and family. It's quite clear to all of them that Monty's departure marks an end of an era for the group, although some are not so sure of exactly what that means for themselves. In various encounters throughout the 24 hours, these wonderfully complex characters share their fears and philosophies in a way that is surprisingly natural. At one point, Frank and Jakob look down on the ruins of the World Trade Center and Frank says, "You think you're still going to be friends? You think you'll kick back with a couple beers and reminisce? Forget it, Jake. It's all over after tonight." Rather than imply a direct connection between the Trade Center attacks and Frank's statement, this particular backdrop frames the scene in a sobering realism and helps expose these characters for who they really are: two New Yorkers feeling helpless in the face of change.

Of course, setups like these are as much the director's doing as they are the writer's, and Spike Lee has much to be proud of for his latest "joint," as he calls it. The flashback sequences, in particular, are well suited to the film. Rather than cut to one somewhat jarringly, or use some other contrived signal for indicating a memory, Lee ties the scenes to the current sequence of events so that you're never entirely sure you're watching a flashback until it's over. This is more seamless than you might think, and it saves Lee from having to provide a number of explanatory scenes at the beginning of the movie in order to set the premise. It also allows him to use a similar method for an especially luminous dream sequence at the end of the movie in which Monty's father imagines what life might be like if he failed to deliver Monty to prison (in other words, if he just kept driving west with his son at his side). While you know it's just a fantasy, Lee helps you try to convince yourself that it's not, and the result is a sort of fool's hopefulness that sums up the entire movie.

My only complaint about 25th Hour is that Monty's girlfriend exists in a vacuum. Although we know she was a student at the same prep school that Monty once attended, and that her mother doesn't like Monty's dog (as mentioned in a passing comment), the question of how a beautiful, athletic, and level-headed woman like herself ended up being with an older drug dealer for so long is never answered. In any case, this is a minor nit to pick, and the movie is still impressive without the additional explanation. Hopefully, the Academy will see it as such when it comes time to hand out trophies next year, for this is certainly one of the finest films of the year.

The DVD includes two commentary tracks (one from Lee, one from Benioff), 10 minutes of deleted scenes, and -- of course -- extra footage of ground zero.

24 hours of freedom and still he's gotta walk the dog.

Comments

25th Hour Rating

" Extraordinary "

Rating: R, 2002

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