DIRECTED BY Spike Lee
STARRING Edward Norton, Barry Pepper, Brian Cox, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Opens April 25, Cert 15, 135 mins
Montgomery Brogan (Norton) is a Brooklyn drug dealer facing a seven-year prison stretch. It’s his final day of freedom and he finds himself arguing with his widowed father, James (Cox), in a Staten Island bar. Monty needs a breather. He slips into the bathroom, where he sees the words “Fuck You” scrawled in lipstick on the mirror. And then it happens. Travis Bickle eat your heart out; Frank Sinatra, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and anyone who ever shadow-boxed with the ghosts of New York, shame on you. For here, 36 minutes into Spike Lee’s haunting adaptation of David Benioff’s crime novel, 25th Hour, Norton delivers a five-minute tour de force of fulminating aggression that savages New York and all of its denizens while somehow simultaneously celebrating their grand and grating diversity.
“Fuck you and this whole city and everyone in it,” he begins, raging into the mirror, exploding the memory of the deadbeat Travis Bickle and his plangent plea for a “real rain” to wash the city clean. “Fuck the Korean Grocers,” he rants, “fuck the Russians in Brighton Beach… the Bensonhurst Italians… the Upper East Side wives… ” And as he pounces on each target we cut to supersaturated images of the guilty parties, courtesy of Amores Perros cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. And on it goes, “Fuck the cops… the priests… Osama Bin Laden… World Com…,” until finally, exhausted, Norton fixes himself with a crestfallen look. “No. Fuck YOU Montgomery Brogan. You had it all and you threw it away. You, dumb, fuck!”
Any other film-maker would’ve made this the cathartic apogee of their movie?”After one final day in the city with friends Frank (Pepper) and Jakob (Hoffman), former dealer Monty has a climactic epiphany.” But not Spike Lee. He’s got far too much to say to let this riff on Taxi Driver stand alone. So, after an opening scene involving a pre-busted Monty, an injured dog and an ominous invocation of Murphy’s Law, the movie clatters us with a breathtaking title sequence. As satisfying as any short film, and underscored by Terence Blanchard’s dense orchestral ache, the sequence is an elegant time-lapse homage to the Twin Towers Commemorative Lights. Here, the beams shooting up to eternity, mocking the transience of fallen brick and steel, have a powerful echo in the fate that ridicules Monty’s clunky human choices.
Elsewhere, the addition of 9/11 references, including ubiquitous flags, streetside memorials, and the excavated Trade Center site itself, only deepens the sense of grief and confusion that passes osmotically between protagonist and city. It also gives the film an unspeakable, mythic dimension, and helps it digest the twin notions of decision and destiny in Monty’s/New York’s/America’s fate. What did they do to deserve this?
It’s ironic, then, that the movie only wobbles when it returns from Lee’s loftier heights to its gritty roots in Benioff’s 24-hour crime story. The parade of bug-eyed Russian villains, the shoehorning of Monty’s biography into otherwise aimless exchanges, and the ostensibly critical question of who tipped off the Feds are far less engaging than watching Monty’s existential crisis unfold. “With your mind,” says James to his shattered son, “you could’ve been anything you wanted.” Instead, of his own free will, by choosing to become a dealer, he chose prison.
Monty’s dilemma is made painfully compelling by the subtlety of Norton’s performance. Yes, he’s got that familiar busy busy amphetamine rush of Rounders, The Score and Red Dragon, but there’s also a tremble of sadness and fear in his demeanour that makes him fascinating to watch (the film feels his loss whenever he’s off screen). Similarly, Pepper, so cruelly miscast in The Green Mile, is here an intimidating force, all angular cheekbones and vulpine smile, as Monty’s slippery investment banker buddy.
Finally, it should be no surprise that a movie defined by bravura sequences should close with, literally, a showstopper. Narrated in a caramel whisper by Cox, it’s a vivid vision of an alternative prison-free future for Monty, made all the more poignant by the reality that faces him. As a cinematic moment, it’s a tender evocation of all the contradictions and hypocrisies inherent in the notion of an ‘American Dream’, and it also singles out Spike Lee as one of the most intellectually alert and contemporary film-makers working in American film today.