You know you're watching a good film when you willingly follow along with a scoundrel and a criminal. You know something special is happening when you find yourself pulling for the bad guy in the end. That is part of the magic of Spike Lee's vastly underrated and compelling drama, 25th Hour. It is about a man's final night before being sent away to prison; it may as well be his last night on Earth. I couldn't imagine such a scenario for myself. But there is no final reveal or twist to the plot revealing this man's innocence just in time. No, this is a convicted drug dealer who has led a life of crime with a solid run of bad things on his resume. And yet, the magic of this film is more powerful than any CGI, as you root for this man to find... something. Anything.
The man here is Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), a mid-level drug dealer and heavy hitter amongst his neighborhood cronies. Monty has been pinched by the DEA and sentenced to seven years in a Federal prison, where he realizes he will go from tough guy to jail bait for sodomy and brutality as soon as he sets foot inside the walls of the penitentiary. We pick up with Monty in his last twenty-four hours of freedom. He hangs out with his friends, his girlfriend, and says goodbye to his stomping ground. His closest friend, Frank (Barry Pepper), feels bad for Monty, but not enough to change his own ways. Monty occupies the halls of these dance clubs and restaurants with Frank, but he may as well be a ghost.
Monty's other friend, Jacob, could not be any more different than Monty and Frank. He is a nervous schoolteacher, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the type of awkward and uncertain role that defined his early career. Jacob is especially uneasy when a student of his (Anna Paquin) appears at a nightclub and seduces him. The trio dance and drink their way through the New York nightlife until, alas, the night is over. Monty and Frank find themselves alone in the breaking dawn, and Monty has a plan; Frank must do something to help Monty survive. This final act of friendship is a brutal and shocking moment of clarity between the two men, a moment which Monty has been angling towards all night.
Monty wanted to be a fireman, a working man like his father, but was seduced into a life of crime. Before he knew it, things got out of hand and here he is, searching for the road crooked map of his life. Edward Norton is perfect here, as he usually is. As Monty, Norton carries the weight of a condemned man in his basset-hound eyes and heavy soul. And despite the selfishness of Frank, he is still Monty's closest companion in the world. He may not have changed in the wake of Monty's conviction, but Monty wouldn't have changed had the shoe been on the other foot. Frank is simply the reflection of who Monty once was.
The typical directorial flares of Spike Lee are here, from his floating character shots, to the perfect soundtrack manipulations. What is often overlooked in 25th Hour is the dialogue from David Benioff, who also wrote the novel. The words are sharp and succinct. Many words are spoken and not one is wasted. Despite the material, this is a film about relationships and existential discussions. I cannot imagine a sentence like Monty's, losing seven years of my life to pay for my past sins. Perhaps I would make my friend help me the same way Frank helps him.