Face Value
David Ehrlich on 25th Hour

“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” —George Orwell

Spike Lee begins 25th Hour by placing the camera directly inside the Tribute of Light—the defiant 9/11 memorial that replaced the twin towers with shafts of illumination. It’s an artwork that intangibly reconstitutes the architecture of the past as an installation that literally lights the present. As seen in cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s oblique compositions, the thick blue beams resemble those of a projector, firing out into the infinite darkness as though in search of a screen. It’s only when the camera retreats for a wider view, the first percussive strains of Terence Blanchard’s mournful score building to a possessed wail, that we get a clear picture of what we’re watching.

25th Hour was the first major American film to grapple with 9/11, and—perhaps because of its unparalleled proximity to that date—still remains the movie to best understand the psychic fallout of the millennium’s definitive cataclysm. David Benioff conceived the source novel in the late 90s and it was published in early 2001, and while his own screenplay is faithful to the book, it’s clear from the beginning that the story was transformed by the attacks on lower Manhattan. There was obviously a danger that such a transposition might feel broad or opportunistic, but the Tribute of Light provides a perfect kickoff image for the story of Montgomery Brogan’s final hours as a free man, the immaterial architecture illustrating the seemingly infinite extent to which our lives are defined by how we remember that which has been destroyed.

But 25th Hour is ultimately a portrait of New York. Monty doesn’t seem like a resident of New York City so much as a borough unto himself, a man who has conflated his identity with that of the metropolis to which he belongs. He’s a child of a city that builds up its relics and over its ruins, so lost in the thrall of its own inertia that it would rather gentrify than reroute, a unique place that feels at once immortal and always on the brink of disaster. It’s like the city never sleeps because it’s afraid it might not wake up the next morning.

Monty’s relationship with New York is revealed to us in broken fragments and wistful flashbacks. A scrappy kid from Staten Island who was born with too much charm for a man without a chance, Monty barreled through life with the kind of tunnel vision required of someone less concerned with where they’re going than the velocity at which they’re getting there. Slinging hash for the Russian mob, he refused to consider how such a job might impact his future, because it so neatly severed him from his past. He willfully submitted himself to the inertia of criminal gain, never facing the consequences of his actions. (He puts on a tough show, but at the end of an early scene in which he’s confronted by a former client in violent withdrawal, Monty is so repulsed with himself that he has to immediately clear the area.) He doesn’t take the subway, he drives a vintage muscle car with an engine that makes enough noise to clear the unlit roads. He rescues a vicious pit bull left to die after losing a dogfight, and he gives it the kind of compensatory love that never lasts. Monty spent his entire adult life trying to be numb, and then he got touched.

Brief prologue notwithstanding, we meet Monty on moving day, as he prepares to relocate from the swank Manhattan apartment he shares with his perfect girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) to the Otisville Correctional Facility, where his partners may not be quite so appealing. The following morning, he’s scheduled to report to the state’s most violent penitentiary for a seven-year stretch, as dictated by the harsh mandates of the Rockefeller Drug Laws and the stiff sentences they insisted upon for first-time offenders. The brunt of the film follows Monty’s final day of freedom, as he ties up loose ends and says his goodbyes.

For Monty, seduced by the illusion of his lifestyle, New York City has always been something of a prison; it’s only now that he’s being held accountable for his actions that he recognizes that fact. In the scene following the opening credits, when we first see Monty in the film’s present tense, his face is obscured by the metal bars of the pier by Carl Schurz Park. He’s already living in a jail of his own design—he’s just waiting for the state to make it official. Everything in Monty’s environment suggests that he’s cornered himself, but it isn’t until the eleventh hour that he’s fully in touch with this reality—the staccato visual texture of the film’s present-day sequences suggest that Prieto under-cranked the camera or shot at a slightly slower frame-rate than that used for the prologue and the alternate future finale, adding an unreal quality to Monty’s waking life. It’s hardly enlightenment, but over the course of the film, Monty begins to actually see himself for the first time (tragic timing, of course, as he’s imbued with this newfound agency the day before he’ll be stripped of his freedoms). While it might be problematic to suggest that Monty was saved by 9/11, it seems fair to conclude that he pulled himself out from under the rubble.

Lee is careful to avoid reducing 9/11 to a teachable moment for Monty, but it’s clear that the attacks fractured Monty’s relationship with the place he’d always regarded as an extension of himself. The Twin Towers were only erected in 1973, and yet it seemed as if they’ve always been there. The World Trade Center was the face of this city, and 9/11 made it ugly. Monty, so concerned with appearances, has become alienated from and antagonized by his beautiful reflection.

25th Hour hinges on an indelible sequence in which Monty is berated by the reflection he sees in the bathroom mirror at his father’s bar. Mirror Monty soliloquizes at his real-world counterpart with an anger in desperate search of a target, indiscriminately railing at every subculture in the five boroughs in a final and knowingly futile attempt to disown his failures and resist the need to change. “Fuck this whole city and everyone in it. Let it burn to fucking ash and then let the waters rise and submerge this whole rat-infested place.” Finally, having exhausted all but the core of his rage, Monty refocuses his anger on himself, ending the tirade with: “No. Fuck you, Montgomery Brogan. You had it all and you threw it away, you dumb fuck!” It’s like watching Smeagol and Gollum yell at each other without any CG to soften the blows. Monty sees the words “fuck you!” inked onto a corner of the bathroom mirror, and he tries to smudge them away. He can’t. It’s a rare moment when the film ascribes an aesthetic dimension to Monty’s vanity. The bravura mirror monologue infers that beauty (in a monument or a man or the fluidity with which he moves his life forward) is dangerous because it exists in a suspended state, privileged by the mundane world that surrounds it. Time is often cited as the enemy of beauty, but its weapon isn’t necessarily decay. Rather, beauty is most comprehensively disempowered when the attention of its beholder is returned to the present.

Less than a year removed from the attacks, the only thing that Lee knew about 9/11 was that it had blemished his home town, a notion made evident by the crater in lower Manhattan, and self-evident by the sensation that the people of New York City had been returned to the present tense in a way that was as unwelcome as it was incontestable. Lee isn’t particularly famous for keeping his emotions in check, but if 25th Hour is an angry film, it isn’t caustically so. Here, Lee’s anger isn’t righteous or revelatory; it’s mournful, understanding, and desperate for expression.

The film’s anger and self-loathing and obsession with surfaces come to a head when Monty climactically offers a final plea: “I need you to really fuck me up.” That’s what he asks of his two closest childhood friends in the hours just before he’s due to report at Otisville. Monty, doggedly handsome in a blue-collar way, knows that he’s a touch too pretty to survive in such an ugly place, and so—after a whirlwind final night of wild introspection—he wants to arrive at prison like a slop of rotten meat, hoping that it will buy him some time to get the lay of the land before he becomes the lay of the land. His intended angels of mercilessness are feral Wall Street goon Frank Slaughtery (Barry Pepper) and simpering prep school teacher Jacob Elinsky (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The three have been best buds since kindergarten, their bond held together by the inertia of their shared memories despite the wildly different directions in which their lives have gone. Or perhaps they keep in touch because together they form a single person: Frank is the wild id, Jacob the neurotic ego, and Monty the superego mediating between the two.

“I want you to hit me as hard as you can.” In Fight Club, those words were a plea for self-discovery; here, Norton paraphrases them as a prayer for self-preservation. When eventually we see the savage extent to which Monty’s face has been recontextualized, it’s gruesomely clear that he had more on his mind than saving his ass. He was hoping to save his present by destroying his past.

If one were to accurately graph Monty’s journey through the film, it would resemble an asymptote towards the present. The fractured time-stream of Benioff’s narrative transforms Monty from a typical hustler into something of a Billy Pilgrim character, unstuck in his own timeline so that his story is told in a way that ultimately reinforces his inability to control it. The film opens with a flashback and ends with a fairy tale—every conversation in between is suspended in a violent tug-of-war between the warmth of the past and the threat of the future. Even the depiction of Monty’s downfall is framed like a Proustian memory, a sighing flashback triggered by the sensation felt by Monty’s hand as it runs along the cushions of the leather couch used to conceal his drugs.

The film’s final sequence—an alternate reality scenario à la The Last Temptation of Christ in which Monty’s father drives toward Otisville while imagining a future for his son—is certainly among the most beautiful passages that Spike Lee has ever created (viewers unfamiliar with New York’s interstate system are liable to find themselves moved by an ambiguity that isn’t there). It begins at a stop sign, when a young kid in another car uses a finger to write “Tom” on a window, and Monty responds in kind by spelling “Monty” above the passenger door of his dad’s SUV. And then Monty’s dad begins to tell a story. “We’ll head out to the middle of nowhere, take that road as far as it takes us.” Lee introduces the narration with shots of rolling landscapes, bound together with slow dissolves that make them difficult to place. By the time we see Monty rocking cowboy getup and a handlebar mustache, we know there’s been a schism of some kind. The fantasy snowballs, and it’s not long until Naturelle arrives on a Greyhound bus—Lee repeats the shot of their first embrace three times, so that even the moment of Monty’s greatest happiness is marred by a temporal break. Finally, as Monty’s dad finishes his fable, resigning as he says, “This life came so close to never happening,” we’re returned to reality, where we see that the two men have already driven past the exit for the George Washington Bridge, which crucially linked Monty’s reality with the future his father imagined for him. Spike Lee doesn’t leave us with an open question. There’s no Hollywood ending in store for Monty.

Lee returns us to the present tense with a wide aerial shot of the car driving off into oblivion, the composition lingering long enough to seduce us into thinking that it will be the film’s last. But then we cut back to Monty in close-up, his head lumped against the passenger seat’s headrest, his eyes swollen closed so gently that he could be dreaming. It might be a stretch to conclude that Monty is at peace, but he’s certainly restored. The name that he had scrawled onto the window beside him has disappeared, reabsorbed into the man from whom it had been separated. Monty has made himself ugly instead of making himself new—he hasn’t changed, but having his face rearranged allowed him to finally recognize himself.

The present has been saved because Monty has been reintroduced back into it. All this talk of restorative power of time might recall Chris Marker’s La Jetée, perhaps the definitive film about time-travel, in which scientists try to retroactively avert World War III by sending prisoners to various points in history, hoping to “Call past and future to the rescue of the present.” Those words, imparted to the viewer in a hypnotic drone, resound like a mission statement for cinema itself. If 25th Hour teaches us anything it’s that the only way forward is through ourselves, that the movies have the capability to locate us firmly in the present, the ability to savor the here and now becoming an increasingly valuable gift as the cinema contends with an unsure future and the chaos of the world at large. Every time I hear someone begin to eulogize the movies, I think of this film and remind myself that the cinema will be fine, if only because the present is always in trouble.