Director Spike Lee’s 25th Hour is a crucial slice of convicted heroin dealer Monty Brogan’s (Edward Norton) life that opens with things that thud, crack and whimper in the night of a black screen. The sounds stun and nauseate. Their impact brings up a well of emotion, a mixture of horror and pity. Both feelings are the heartbeat of tragedy and that of a less-evolved genre, melodrama, but in 25th Hour their pulse is erratic.

Unlike tragedy, melodrama is designed to tear-jerk and provoke indignation. Lee plies his melodramatic means to both ends. In his earlier works, he did so with a vengeance, literally assaulting our sympathies, inciting us into a mob and rallying us to wave our metaphorical torches against some villainous evil — usually white supremacist America.

As Lee has matured, he has refined his touch, playing our sentiments with a defter hand and widening his scope from black American issues to issues of our dysfunctional American society. 25th Hour recapitulates and reassembles the various techniques and themes he has developed over his professional career, and the resulting work reads like a riddling hostage note with each word clipped from different sources. Beneath its almost ridiculously simple slice-of-life story is a subtext that’s disjointedly cryptic.

The film’s grainy and extremely high-contrast pictures, French New Wave jump cuts and odd moments dripping with sexuality collide to synthesize caffeine jitters, an occasionally erotic energy and an atmosphere of anxiety. But this alone fails to wind up 25th Hour’s plot to get it ticking along or open up its meaning. This is a film that requires unpacking and rereading, though it rarely arouses our curiosity to do so.

Before Monty takes his last ride as a free man up the river for a seven-year sentence in a federal penitentiary, Lee hammers and plays on our pity. The unseen mongrel’s punishment for losing a dogfight heard in the opening sequence foreshadows Monty’s own climactic one for losing his way in life. But the subplots depicting his friends since childhood — Jakob Elinsky (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Red Dragon) and Francis Slaughtery (Barry Pepper, We Were Soldiers) — and flanking his own story are more subtle. Together, the stories of “The Dead End Kids,” as they call themselves, create a triptych of narratives.

Jake’s story is an ironic retelling of Lolita: He’s a high school English teacher struggling to resist the temptation incarnated in his hard-bitten and tattooed student, Mary D’Annunzio (Anna Paquin). Monty’s going-away party at a Manhattan hot spot accidentally brings them together, with Lee gliding the sultry schoolgirl through the red-lit club and toward Jake on an unseen dolly (one of the director’s favorite techniques). Later, Lee glides him towards her. Each shot connotes tragic sexuality.

Frank’s issues are his betrayals in thought and word of Monty and himself. Though he tells Jake that after Monty leaves they’ll never see him again, he reassures Monty of the opposite, even making plans for what he and Monty will do together when he’s released. Though Frank seems to be doing well as a stockbroker, he represses the resentment he feels for Monty’s greater financial success built “on the suffering of others.”

Screenwriter David Benioff’s adaptation of his novel of the same name ties these plots together beyond the bonds of friendship. Monty also has a Lolita story and suffers betrayal. He picked up his voluptuous Nuyorican girlfriend, Naturelle Rivera (Rosario Dawson, The Adventures of Pluto Nash), a few years earlier by bumming a light from the then 18-year-old Catholic schoolgirl. Now a suspicion that she may have “touched” him, implicated him to the feds, gnaws on his mind and their relationship.

In a moment right out of Catcher in the Rye, Monty notices “fuck you” written on a men’s room mirror. The comment launches his mirror image into a screed against immigrants, ethnic minorities, Wall Street and finally himself. He can’t rub the words out.

Continuous allusions to Sept. 11 are the film’s leitmotif. In the end Monty, Jake and Frank seem resigned to their fate. The only redemption offered them is false, recalling the end of The Last Temptation of Christ, and this may be Lee’s obscure attempt at allegory: Like the Dead End Kids, post-Sept. 11 America suffers retribution for its sins and has no hope of redemption. In the flawed mirror of 25th Hour, Lee shows us who’s to blame.

James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

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