25th Hour is a film about convicted drug dealer Monty Brogan and his last twenty four hours out before he goes to jail to serve a seven year sentence. Though it's not properly explored in the film, it appears that Monty (Edward Norton) was the King of Manhattan's drug world, with money and connections and a Russian mob who supplied all these things. In the process of his last day, Monty will touch upon all these things, but Lee's film is focused on his relationship with his two childhood friends, Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a high school teacher with a desire for one of his seventeen year old students (Anna Paquin), Frank (Barry Pepper), a cowboy stoke broker, and his girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), who Monty suspects of having tipped him off to the Police. In the space of the film's two hours, each of those poorly named characters will have his and her subplot unravel against Monty's, but ultimately, the viewer won't care for much of them.
Set in New York a year after September 11th, Lee has decided to ignore the characters of the film, turning them instead into metaphors, which is both the film's strongest feature and its biggest problem. Monty, soon to disappear from the landscape, leaving a huge scar in the lives of his friends and family and underworld community, is Ground Zero, the damaged site of the World Trade Centre, of America, and baring those wounds, he wanders the streets, confused and angry and aware that he's fucked up. A long monologue in a bathroom where Monty accuses everyone in New York of being the fucks who ruined his world, who caused the Police to fall down upon him, but which ends with Monty's admission that it was his fault it happened, begins Lee's dialogue with the reasons behind the attack. Naturalle, Monty's young Portugese girlfriend (though born in America) who lives off Monty's drug money in style but hates where it comes from is the metaphor for the attitude of small countries that America helps financially. Jacob, the shy, shambling teacher obsessed with his young and beautiful student is another part of America, the side focused on youth, on sex, and the sold image of the two that is ultimately illegal. Likewise, Frank represents another part of America, that part focused on money and power and the chances one is willing to make to get it. The fuck you attitude to succeed. Within the four characters, Lee's white America is chopped up, turned into walking metaphors that are never able to rise above this.
The film opens a year (or maybe more, it's unsaid) with Monty and his Russian friend, Kostya, stopping on a bridge and finding an injured dog, who is later named Doyle. The dog, bloody and broken and vicious, is taken by Monty to a vet and saved, and becomes the one good, selfless thing that Monty has done in his life. In Lee's landscape, the dog is the representation of the old claim that America is open to anyone, to the poor, the sick, the whatever. In Doyle you have the almost forgotten principle that America was, in theory, raised upon. The narrative's decision to hand Doyle over to one of the three characters at the end suggests that Lee is claiming that only one of these metaphors has the ability to go back to this, to return America to those early principles--and it's no surprise, I guess, that it is the regular man with a fascination with youth, Jacob, who Monty hands the dog over too. A man who, by the end of the film, has realised that the youth he craves is unable to return the desires he wants, and that, should he leave the shallow pursuits of flesh behind, he can rejoin the world as an adult.
Ultimately, however, Lee's conversation in the film isn't enough to make it fulfilling. It is difficult to work a climax into such a work of fiction, and Lee doesn't manage it. His dream sequence where Monty finds an empty town in the desert and lives honestly drags because of its obviousness and, ultimately, it's pointless nature. Likewise, Monty's decision to have Frank beat him so that he isn't pretty when he enters prison, while continuing the internal conversation, isn't very exciting. Perhaps if the film had decided to make real villains out of the Russian mobsters, the unreal note in Lee's realistic construction of a world, the narrative might have had more of an end.
Or it might not.
As a ten dollar, two hour film, I got the worth out of it regarding my time and money. There are some scenes in it that clunk such as Monty's extended blame game dialogue with a mirror, but mostly, it moves along briskly. Norton, as always, is a good and sympathetic lead--though perhaps Lee has made him too sympathetic. The film skirts his drug business, and offers none of the realities that are part, as Frank says, of living off people's misery. But it's interesting enough, and if you don't want to read the metaphoric landscape of the film, it's not difficult to do that.