Hello! Long time, no write. I have NOT disappeared off the face of the planet. No, instead I briefly disappeared to the great state of California, where I saw many beautiful things and learned that In-N-Out Burger truly is the best (though the fries are shit). Unfortunately when you are travelling by Greyhound and staying in hostels it is hard to watch movies, let alone write a blog. And no sooner did I return than I moved to Madison, WI, for graduate school! As in, I started loading up the truck five hours after stepping off the plane! Because why plan things over an extended period of time when you can cram it all into a week? But I have recovered now and so happily return to the world of blogging with the next installment of the Great Movies Odyssey: Spike Lee’s The 25th Hour.
The 25th Hour is above all a story about the America of 2001. The screenplay was adapted from David Benioff’s novel of the same name. To my understanding, the novel is primarily a character study of main character Monty Brogan. However between the time of the novel’s publication and the movie’s release something happened that changed America to its bones: September 11, 2001. In the midst of filming in the middle of New York, Lee had a choice: ignore the tragedy or work it into his film. Not knowing this on my first viewing, I thought that the film was always supposed to be about post 9/11 America, that Benioff had rushed out his novel after the attack leading Lee to take the opportunity to make a film about the city he loves. That’s how much 9/11 permeates this film.
The plot centers on Monty (Edward Norton) and his last day of freedom before beginning a seven year sentence for drug dealing. There is no question as to his guilt; however he doesn’t know who turned him into the police. Was it his girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson)? Or was it one of his childhood friends (Barry Pepper and Phillip Seymour Hoffman)? Or someone else altogether?
The opening credit sequence of the film focuses on the two beams of the Twin Towers Memorial. Like New York (and America), Monty has been knocked down. Formerly the Big Man around the neighborhood with enough wealth and power to have everything he desires, he has been humbled. His Ukrainian colleague Kostya (Tony Siragusa) encourages him to suspect Naturelle of turning him in, and indeed, she does have motive. But his ex-firefighter father (Brian Cox) says no: “Naturelle loves you,” he says, “She would never hurt you.” We see from flashbacks that they had a loving relationship before his arrest, but now Monty cannot trust her. The only people he does trust are his two best friends: Wall Street trader Frank Slaughtery (Pepper) and high school teacher Jacob Ellinsky (Hoffman). But even they say Monty is getting what he deserves. “He benefitted from the misery of others,” Frank tells Jacob, cheerfully ignoring the fact that high finance also makes its money from deceiving and hurting others–albeit from a distance.
Monty is not only representative of America; he is also repeatedly associated with Christ imagery. A poster for Cool Hand Luke, in which Paul Newman plays an obvious Christ figure, hangs prominently in his apartment. He even calls notice to his role in the (in)famous Fuck You New York scene: “JC got it easy– a weekend in hell and then hallelujahs for eternity.” To his mind, what does that compare to seven years in prison? However if Monty is a Christ figure, he is an inverted Christ. Monty has been betrayed, but he suffers because of his own sins. Whether or not he will be resurrected remains to be seen.
Watching the movie in 2013, I see more parallels to America post-9/11. America suffered, but I don’t think we ever resurrected ourselves. More specifically, I don’t think we ever regained the certainty of glory we had pre-9/11. Instead we remain lost in a moral mess that continues to grow worse. Of course, diplomatic relations have always been complicated. However I believe that pre-9/11 we had conviction in our moral superiority, whereas now we have lost our faith.
This despair is expressed in Monty’s Fuck You New York monologue. In the middle of his final supper with his father, he goes into the restroom to clear his head. Looking into the mirror, he sees a bit of graffiti saying, “Fuck You.” That sets him off in a rant against every single racial and economic group in New York and beyond. It is important to note that his reflection is the only one speaking. Monty himself does not move his lips. The entire monologue is in his head. Yes, it is racist. Yes, it is hateful. But haven’t we all had those thoughts at times? I don’t consider myself a racist, but there have certainly been bad days when my first thought if a foreign tourist gets in my way is something I would never say out loud. Frustration can dig up some dark stuff from the most shameful parts of our mind. That is what Monty is talking about. He ends his speech with an earnest, “Fuck YOU” at his reflection– all of his racist epithets come from his own self-disgust.
Balancing this scene is another monologue delivered at the end of the film by Monty’s father as he drives his son to prison. In it he imagines a future where he and Monty will drive out west. They’ll find a quiet town and part ways, never to meet again. Monty will live out a peaceful life outside the law, and his father will die a happy man knowing his son is free. It is an imagined happy ending.
How this speech ends is a matter for debate. Monty’s father describes a happy day in the future when Monty will tell his children that once upon a time he was a convicted drug dealer but that that life is all behind him. Then the film returns to Monty and his father in the car. When I watched the movie, I thought this was a sad reality check. Monty will still go to prison for seven years, and there will be no happy ending for anyone. However according to Wikipedia: “As the fantasy ends, we see Monty. . .sitting in the passenger’s seat of the car, which has driven past the bridge to the west.”
I don’t know. It’s important to note that IMDB interprets the final shot completely opposite: “When [the monologue] ends, we see they have gone past the bridge, meaning Monty has chosen jail over running.” However, Wikipedia’s reading would fit in with the “Go west, young man” rhetoric of American literature. But if Monty is going to be a Christ figure, he has to go to hell (prison)and suffer.
In my discussion, I haven’t really mentioned much about the individual characters besides Monty. I could write an entire post about the treatment of women in this movie. Rarely do you see a film that identifies so consciously with a male viewpoint: women are either overtly sexualized (Anna Pacquin’s jailbait high school student) or domesticated (Dawson’s girlfriend figure). They are not seen as people with desires outside of what affects their menfolk. Maybe that’s because the act of being humbled by an enemy attack is a traditionally male attribute– think of the end portion of The Illiad in which the Trojans are humbled by the Greeks’ victory over their city.
Next: Robert Altman’s 3 Women
Have you seen The 25th Hour? What did you think?
As always, I own nothing related The 25th Hour.