Back Door Blues

What Spike Lee’s 25th Hour is really about. 

Norton contemplating anal rape

Spike Lee’s entrancing 25th Hour (Touchstone) revolves around Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), a convicted New York drug dealer with only one day left before he heads upstate to prison for seven years. Monty passes the hours by thinking back over his life as the son of alcoholic firefighter turned bar owner (Brian Cox), the courier of a Russian mobster, and the boyfriend of a hotcha Puerto Rican girl (Rosario Dawson) who might have tipped off agents to his stash. He also reaches out to his childhood pals, the timid prep-school English teacher Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the ruthless Wall Street hotshot Slaughtery (Barry Pepper). Although the novel and the screenplay (both by David Benioff) were written before 9/11, Lee injects New York’s tragedy into the mix. He opens with a shot of two beams of light where the twin towers once stood. And as Monty and a dog he has picked up wander the city—perhaps for the last time—we see a steady stream of American flags and memorials, even Ground Zero itself.

At its best, 25th Hour is a melancholy tone poem, deeply affecting in its mute apprehension of loss, with a lush, imposing orchestral score by Terence Blanchard that could be titled “Elegy for 9/11,” along with Bruce Springsteen’s “The Fuse” (with a Blanchard string arrangement) over the closing credits. But the movie is also muddled by its own ambitions. There is simply no connection between the themes of Benioff’s screenplay and 9/11, and every time Lee over-inflates the story, he loses its real pulse. In one sequence, Jacob and Slaughtery stand before a large picture window with a prime view of Ground Zero. They’re talking about their friend’s coming maximum-security imprisonment: Jacob has a naive faith that Monty will emerge intact in seven years; Slaughtery doesn’t think that a slender cutie like him will survive among all those muscular, horny sociopaths for very long. But all that registers for the audience is the pit; and Lee ends the scene with a long, mournful shot of bulldozers clearing away what once was the World Trade Center.

Barring the unlikely idea that the bulldozers symbolize said muscular sociopaths, something central hasn’t been fully dramatized. Not to put too fine a point on it, the story of 25th Hour is fueled by the threat of anal rape: It’s what preoccupies Monty, and it’s the heart of the sexual-panic motif that runs (subtly, mischievously) through the screenplay (in different directorial hands, the film could been a queasy comedy). Monty urges his girlfriend to put on a short, clingy, cleavage-baring white dress for his last night at a mob-owned nightclub with the boys; Jacob struggles with his lust for his flirty poetry student (Anna Paquin), who shows up high on Ecstasy and pulls him into a druggy, slow-motion pas de deux that’s one of the movie’s high spots; and Slaughtery spends his spare time numerically quantifying his and his buddies’ desirability to women. Sexual panic fuels the wrenching climax, too, in which Monty prevails upon Slaughtery to save him from those muscular convicts by doing something that no pal should ever have to do—but that many pals might want to do. To make any sense, 25th Hour needed the kind of displaced homoerotic vibe that David Fincher brought to Fight Club (1999). But Lee is not—how can I put this tactfully?—a director who seems comfortable tackling homoeroticism, even for a second, even obliquely. And besides, he has monuments to 9/11 to erect.

After a spate of dull and/or gimmicky performances, Norton is once again in his peculiar element: His voice and countenance are angry, but his body has a plaintive, poetic curl. His reediness is a nice foil for the big, doleful Hoffman, who here sounds uncannily like Al Franken (with a bit of Dustin Hoffman nasality). The only jarring note in Norton’s characterization is a scene in the spirit of Do the Right Thing (1989), in which Monty stares into the mirror and delivers a syncopated harangue against the city’s sundry ethnic groups. It’s not clear what any of these tribes have to do with Monty’s predicament—he’s an educated Irish white boy who works for Russians. But it does set up Lee’s (and Blanchard’s) lyrical leave-taking of the city, when all the groups that fueled Monty’s rage are now seen bidding him a tender adieu. This is love supreme in a Spike Lee joint: a place where you hate everyone and everyone hates you, but parting is such sweet sorrow.