Spike Lee’s “25th Hour” opens with Monty Brogan (Edward Norton, low-key and smoldering as ever) rescuing a half-dead dog from a New York City alley. Curious. Is it a fond memory? Does it speak to some innate goodness in Monty’s nature? It could be both. Or it could point to a less happy ending, a twist of fate. Both are, in a sense, sitting ducks — the dog in the beginning, Monty in the end. The key difference is that the dog didn’t do anything to deserve his circumstances. He is innocent. Monty, we will learn, is not.
Even if Monty’s not innocent, he’s a genial enough guy. He’s strong-willed, street smart, cordial but never overly familiar with his clients — all good qualities for a drug dealer to have. Greed turns out to be his undoing. It’s Monty’s last night of freedom before he starts a seven-year prison term for cocaine possession/intent to distribute, so at times “25th Hour” feels like a death march with one probable ending. Monty’s childhood friend Frank (Barry Pepper) reasons that he actually has three choices: He can do the time and come out broken, commit suicide or run. Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Monty’s other best friend, has a more hopeful (possibly “delusional”) outlook: He will visit Monty in prison; he will care for his dog; and when Monty’s sentence is over, life will go back the way it was. Jacob wonders why prison has to change things. That Frank and Jacob discuss this in an apartment with a window overlooking ground zero is telling, an atmospheric touch to underscore the grim mood of this evening. Monty’s girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) can’t think seven years ahead; she’s just worried that Monty’s gradually pulling away from her. His fater, James (Brian Cox), alternately tries to bolster Monty’s spirits and wonders aloud how Monty let himself get into this situation. Monty’s quick to remind his father that he wasn’t so critical when the drug money kept his bar afloat.
Unusual about “25th Hour” is the way the secondary characters’ motivations and lives are more intriguing than the protagonist’s. This could be seen as a flaw, or a subversion of expectations. Monty has an expiration date stamped on his freedom; the course of his life has been decided. There’s little room for spontaneity. What’s surprising is the way his friends deal with this looming expiration date. Hoffman’s Jacob is a poor schlub, a teacher besotted with one of his students, Mary (Anna Paquin). He channels his frustration over Monty’s situation into an ill-advised kiss with the 17-year-old, whose expression is a silent scream. Pepper, all bravado and suppressed hostility, needs someone to blame for Monty’s fall. Naturelle is an easy, vulnerable target (a “gold-digging spic,” he calls her). Dawson reacts like a wounded animal, making it clear she understands that Monty’s friends and associates suspect. No one has to say it. And why not? She’s as guilty as everybody else — guilty of enjoying Monty’s steady cash flow, of waiting too long to urge him to get out of the business. Dawson is terrific in the part, determined to make Naturelle deeper than a trophy girlfriend in a skin-tight silver dress.
The subtext Spike Lee infuses into “25th Hour” is that everyone is looking for someone to blame for Monty’s mistake, which provides a natural — and artfully rendered — metaphor for post-9/11 New York City. Lee certainly doesn’t hide this, even beginning “25th Hour” with a shot of NYC’s skyline with the twin beams of blue light is striking. It’s a doozy of a mood setter that suggests Lee will chronicle how those attacks knocked New York City’s people flat, stumbling and furious like bees stunned by smoke. He illustrates all that frustration, all that anger no one knows where to direct, in a breathtaking scene where Norton spies “fuck you!” scrawled on a pub’s bathroom mirror and launches into a powerful, no-holds-barred tirade against everyone he can think of: Korean grocers, blacks, Indian cab drivers, Enron-styled rich crooks. It’s a moment where one rant captures the collective anger of millions of people. For that scene alone, “25th Hour” may be the definitive portrait of New York City reeling back after 9/11.