“Fuck You.” Those are the words that Monty (Edward Norton) sees scrawled on the dingy mirror of a public bathroom. The words stare at him, almost like a challenge, a personal message written explicitly for the dog’s dinner he managed to make of his life. What happens after is one of the greatest monologues in cinematic history. Using this graffiti as a trigger for all of his worst demons, Monty launches into a rant about, well, everyone. From the Sikhs and Pakistanis, to the Koreans, to African Americans, to Puerto Ricans, nobody is safe. It’s an ugly bit of dialogue, showcasing the worst, most racist and prejudiced tendencies that are buried deep within Monty’s subconscious.
What is noticeable, however, is the end of the monologue, where Monty turns his hatred inward, recognizing that he is only taking out his frustrations about his own personal failings towards others. In this instance, what initially is a scene of hatred instead turns into an exorcism of one’s own demons. Spike Lee masterfully transitions what could be a hateful, spiteful moment into something cleansing and beautiful, a powerful reconciliation of a man’s own anger and resentment.
“25th Hour” follows one night in Monty’s life, his one last moment of freedom before being sent off to jail for seven years for drug dealing. In this unique compression of time, it shares more than a few similarities with J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” – -the expletive ridden graffiti being the clearest allusion. Similar to Salinger’s book, “25th Hour” is, in many ways, a coming of age story where not too much really happens. Ultimately, it’s about a guy who goes out with friends, then is driven off to jail. Not exactly high drama. What makes up the meat of the story is the detailed portrait of Monty’s regret set in relation to a recovering, post-9/11 New York.
The allusions to 9/11 aren’t exactly subtle, even if the story doesn’t explicitly deal with the event. Forget the Islamophobia that Monty has inside him, there is literally a scene between two of Monty’s friends set right next to Ground Zero. But what exactly is Lee trying to say about the event? Well, nothing, I would argue. Instead, he’s trying to make a statement of what New York City was like after the event. In psychoanalyzing the spirit of the city in relation to Monty, Lee realizes that NYC was in a similar state of regret. Regret of America’s foreign policy. Regret of its treatment of other races. Regret of living so large and so fast. And yet, like Monty, it is trying to rebuild itself from the ashes.
Lee seems to state that the only way for New York, and America at large, to recover from such a catastrophic event is to look inward at its own issues and problems. Lee has long since been a critic of America’s institutional racism and “25th Hour,” one of his few films with a white protagonist, finds himself still in very familiar territory. Unlike many other Hollywood films, Monty’s whiteness actually plays a critical role in the narrative. He didn’t become a drug dealer because of the institutional racism and classism instilled by America. In fact, he had the potential to become anybody after being offered a scholarship at a private school. But he threw it all away because of his own choices. Monty’s life story mirrors America’s in many ways. America, like Monty, was a scrappy and young before being given opportunities for greatness. And after taking those opportunities, it exploited its newfound powers for personal gain to the detriment of others. After a catastrophic event (in America’s case it’s 9/11, in Monty’s case it’s being sent to jail) it is forced to reconcile with its very identity and soul, and take stock of what it really stands for.
“25th Hour” may boast a series of great performances from the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rosario Dawson, and Barry Pepper, but it’s a one man show for Norton. It’s a credit to Norton that he’s able to play this character so effectively, because not only is he responsible for portraying a character, he has to get across the anguished soul of America. Monty is all of us at our worst. He holds deep-seated prejudices, he’s careless with his life, and now, he’s full of regret. At the end of the film, Monty’s father gives him the option to run away, to start a new life, to be free. It seems like such a tempting fantasy. But Monty refuses. He decides to go to jail because only there can he truly reconcile himself with the man he is. And it is only by facing the ugliest parts of itself that America can learn to heal.
“25th Hour” feels more relevant than ever. Unfortunately, it seems like America didn’t use 9/11 as an opportunity for growth, but rather to double down on the ugliest aspects of itself. Now, more than ever, America needs to come face to face with its dark underbelly, because now, said underbelly has been flipped over to reveal itself to the world. Trump may seem like an aberration, but in truth, he isn’t. He is what America has been hiding for centuries, a cruel, dark menace that spreads nothing but hatred and fear. There really is only one message that has any chance of waking America to its sins: “Fuck You.”