*This essay on The 25th Hour was originally presented as a talk for a class on the films of Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the Spring 2012 Emory University OLLI Ongoing Education Program.*
by Matt Smith
As a director, Spike Lee has tackled some of the biggest issues of growing up and living in New York City: racism, sex, even the Son of Sam killer. In The 25th Hour, adapted from a novel by David Benioff, I’m not sure he is after a single issue, but is instead more interested in discovering, interrogating, and rebuilding the identity of the city after the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center. Not one to shy away from unflattering portrayals of the city he knows and loves, he turns his camera on every aspect of the life protagonist Monty (Edward Norton) knew and is about to lose. Ultimately, the film becomes a portrait of hope, lost and found.
Monty is heading to prison for seven years for selling narcotics, and the film concerns his last twenty-four hours of freedom and his relationships with his girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), and his two friends, Jacob (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Frank (Barry Pepper). The twenty-fifth hour of the title refers to the hour of his imminent incarceration.
The first image we see in the film is of Monty’s car, pulling up to a dog that has been beaten and thrown out by its owner. At first, Monty tells his criminal friend Kostya they should shoot the dog and put it out of its misery, but when the dog puts up a fight, he decides to save him. When we next see the dog, it is at Monty’s feet, now named Doyle. Later, Monty will say that saving Doyle was the only thing he ever did right in his life. That may not be far from the truth.
The aesthetic differences in these two sequences–and many others in The 25th Hour–are going to fuel much of what I want to discuss about the film. The first, in which Monty saves Doyle, is processed with a higher grain, the film looks cheap and worn; the colors are blown out into an unnatural hue. It looks, for all intents and purposes, like an amateur home movie, at least visually. The camera moves are too smooth and purposeful to thoroughly emulate that style. But the point is to have the audience call upon its knowledge of what a home movie from their collective past might look like in order to denote temporal shifts in the film’s plotting. When we see Monty sitting at the harbor with Doyle at his feet, the film looks and feels crisp and clean. Its visual presentation, with smooth camera movement and high-gloss cinematography, informs us that this is the present, and thus what we saw previously was the past. Through visual style and without the help of titles informing us of the date and time, Lee establishes multiple narrative threads across different temporalities.
This is a tactic that is employed by Spike Lee throughout many of his films. He relies on the visual culture we have established over the past 150 years in photography and moving images to inform us of what we are watching and how we should be watching, but also to make us interrogate the images he is showing. His visual aesthetics are anything but subtle in this regard, allowing us frequent subjective identification with certain characters and allowing us to view the things they say to and about one another through a critical and historically-minded lens. When characters talk about race in a Spike Lee film, they are speaking about our country’s entire history of immigration and racial intolerance. When Monty tells the city of New York “Fuck You” in The 25th Hour, he also tells every stereotyped person in the city “Fuck You,” too.
In this scene, Monty vents the anger we all feel occasionally. He blames everyone but himself. But rather than simply showing that Monty is a bigoted Irish kid from the outskirts of the city, Lee instead gives voice to the thoughts which race through anyone’s head when they’re pissed off. He then changes course and has Monty tell himself, “No, fuck you.” The blame for Monty’s troubles lay at his own feet, and he knows it. This, I believe, is one of the central points of Lee’s film, and is especially relevant to the city of New York and the 9/11 attacks. In scene after scene, The 25th Hour tells us that our individual choices lead to the consequences we must suffer.
This is not to say that Lee blames America like some crazy-conservative Jerry Falwell, who famously said the 9/11 attacks were punishment from God for our national sins. Instead, the film’s point about the city and the physical and emotional scars left on it in 2001, which still exist to this day, is that we cannot view the events of our lives and all of the ups and downs, without being able to accept that everything happens as a consequence of something else. This can be an attack carried out by religious fanatics as retaliation for what they view as a hegemonic and manipulative foreign policy as exercised by our government, or it can simply be our incarceration in prison due to a felony like selling drugs. The point is that once the scar is there, we need to try and understand it if we are ever going to survive it. We need to, just as Monty spends his final day as a free man doing, learn from our mistakes in order to move into the future.
There are a couple of other scenes worth discussing in this regard, as well as in regard to Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Jacob Elinsky, a high school English teacher who has an infatuation with one of his underage students. Jacob is a character who knows his impulses toward his student Mary could cost him his job, but he is unable to overcome them. Even when Frank tells him to leave it alone and do nothing, he winds up kissing her while out at Monty’s going away party at a hip night club. In a moment of drunken misjudgment, he follows her into the restroom and plants one hesitant kiss on her lips, drawing back, wiping his mouth and leaving her alone in the toilet, stunned at the turn of events. That Mary has been pestering him to change her grade in his class from a B to an A only complicate matters, and ultimately gives her the leverage with which to manipulate him. He could lose his job after all. Lee doesn’t give us the end of Jacob’s story. We don’t know what happens once he returns to school and Mary, who was drunk and high on ecstasy herself, may not even remember what happened. But Jacob certainly will, as acknowledged by Lee’s trademark camera movement which sees a character move through a space without walking, as if pulled by destiny toward their ultimate fate.
Of course we know the fate of New York. We see it from the window in Frank’s apartment as he and Jacob discuss Monty’s prison sentence and their impending night out on the town. The hole in the ground left by the World Trade Center’s collapsed towers is a constant reminder that things will never be the same; not the city, not national policy, not even Monty after he returns from prison. Traumatic experience changes us, transforms us. This is not to say that we cannot rebuild after the trauma. The scenes which show the rubble being cleared from ground zero immediately following Frank and Jacob’s discussion indicate that anything can be wiped away and begun anew. But that doesn’t mean the scars won’t remain. That doesn’t mean that anything has changed fundamentally about our legacy. We are still a man who has gone to prison. We are still a nation who is enacting foreign policy which may come back to us in one form or another.
In closing, I want to bring up the question of national history in Lee’s films more generally. As an African-American filmmaker, Lee is constantly interrogating and documenting our country’s problematic history. Whether it is blatant, as in Do The Right Thing or Malcolm X, or subtle, as it is here and in Summer of Sam, he is a filmmaker intimately familiar with the multi-racial and ethnic make-up of the United States and is invested in progress. In each one of his films, the progress he wants us to make is one toward love and acceptance, while also allowing ourselves to be angry at the country and the city we love more than anything else. Our identity as envisioned by Spike Lee is one of hope, but one which cannot survive without hating what we once were or did in order to move on to something we can love and be proud of being. In The 25th Hour, the ending, in which Monty envisions his life on the run should he skip going to prison as one of happiness, is indicative of this striving. We cannot take the easy way out. Like Monty’s life that came so close to not happening (and doesn’t), our own lives, as Americans, as urban- and suburbanites, cannot be lead along the easiest path. If we truly want to come out ahead, we have to deal with our actions.