For myself, watching 25th Hour was sort-of like taking a palm reading. Noticing one line, representative of a life-path, stretches out long and far, while another line branches off and stops short in the middle of your palm. You question which life path will you take, and which are you currently on now. Are you one the short one or the long one? You question the various choices and decisions that you made in the past, and which life-line have those choices and decisions ultimately lead you down. In a round-about way, the three characters in Spike Lee's 25th Hour are struggling with these same kind of questions. Based on a novel by David Benioff, the film is essentially three people struggling with the choices that they have made in their past, and the choices they are to make in the future -- and which path will it ultimately lead them down.
Edward Norton stars as Monty Brogan, a man whose life decision, becoming a drug dealer, has left him facing a seven year prison term, "...with 84 days off with good behaviour." It's the morning before, and Monty has twenty-five hours left to examine his life, bond with his closest friends, say goodbye to family, find a home for his dog, and figure out a way to survive in the joint. At one point, Monty's friend refers to his incarceration, as "...going to hell and never coming back," and the audience gets the feeling that it's not just a coy metaphor. If Monty does survive his "time", he will most assuredly not be the person they once knew when he gets out.
Even though he has grown distant from them over the years, Monty chooses to spend his remaining hours with his closest friends from childhood, Jacob Elinsky (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Frank Slaughtery (Barry Pepper). Socially and economically, these are two of the most dissimilar people one is likely to see spending time together in a film. Their only real connection is the deeply entrenched devotion they feel to their friend. Jacob is a nerdy English teacher, whose gift for the language, has done little for his social skills. His self-doubt and shame for being born wealthy has left him single, lonely and in a thankless job. He desperately yearns for one of his students, a beautiful and precocious seventeen year old, Mary D'Annunzio (Anna Paquin), but is afraid to act on it, fearful that such a decision will lead to him being fired from his job, or even worse, arrested. Frank, on the other hand, is on the opposite end of the character spectrum, he's a good-looking, rich Wall Street trader, who, unlike, his nebbish friend, has never had a problem with the ladies. Also unlike Jacob, Frank is much more forthright in his feelings about life, and his friend's impending incarceration, "He profited from other's misery and he deserves what he gets," he tells Jacob. Norton's character also has a girlfriend, Naturelle, played by Rosario Dawson, whom he believes might have been the one who sold him out to the police. There's also his father, played by Brian Cox, a retired fireman who owns a bar on Staten Island which caters primarily to fire fighters. Each of these people, in their own way, blames them self for what is happening to Monty.
The story propels forward when the three childhood friends gather in a nightclub, with Jacob's student, Mary, and Monty's girlfriend, Naturelle, tagging along. It is what happens in this club, on this night, that provides the core of the movie. The accusations that are made, the favor that is asked, the choices that are acted upon, and the truth that is revealed, will stay with these characters long after the 25th hour has widdled and gone away. Will these friends be willing to enact Doyle's Law, in a figurative sense, and save Monty Brogan, the symbolic beaten dog?
25th Hour is also memorable for grappling openly with the aftermath of September 11th. Lee skillfully immerses it into the subtext of the story. Referenced in pictures of fire fighters who lost their lives at the World Trade Center, which adorn the walls of the local sports bar and the uptown offices of the traders; to the mention of Bin Laden in a particularly biting commentary by Monty; to Frank Slaughtery's defiant refusal to move from his apartment, which sits overlooking the ruins of the Twin Towers. Director Spike Lee, never known for being subtle, thrusts these images, and his obvious anger about it, into the viewers lap and compels them to deal with it. Also memorable is the venomous diatribe by Norton into a bathroom mirror, where he verbally attacks every group in New York regardless of ethnicity, sexual preference or socioeconomic standing. Not even the church or JC himself, is safe from his tirade, which ends when Monty realizes the only person he has to blame for his predicament, is the one staring back at him in the mirror.
The whole film plays in a subdued, almost depressing, tone. There are no laughs to be had, no falsely engineered moments where the characters break bread, and cry, and get all remorseful -- none of that. We feel as Monty feels: perplexed, distressed, unsure of those things to come and angry for how he happened to arrive at this place, and moment, in his life -- his last 25 hours.