Wednesday, September 17, 2003

25th Hour, or On Gangs Of New York

(This is what they call a preamble. The review hasn't started yet. This is before the "let's all go to the lobby" song. This is the part where I state, quite irrefutably, that no movie, ever, is ever again, ever, allowed to ever evoke Arab Terrorist attacks while playing waily Muslim chants on the soundtrack. Two out of three Scotts do this whenever they get the chance. Every Joel does his damndest to incorporate this into every picture they are involved with. I have too much respect for any Lee to allow this to happen in any more of their movies again. That is all. The review will now happen.)

The thing I liked about Gangs of New York was (apart from the lovingly realised depiction of its milieu, which was just grand) the much-underappreciated way in which the narrative, at some point, allowed the engaging-but-hackneyed blood-stays-on-the-blade storyline to be devoured and rendered irrelevant by the greater story of America Rising: the way the growing political unease that had become a backdrop managed, by the film's third act, to eclipse the petty little DiCaprio-Lewis conflict. It was a timely little piece of narrative doodling, playing with expectations to create, dare I say it, an effective metaphor for the way conflicting forces were eclipsing the day-to-day narrative of c21st Western living.

Had the world not been in the place it was when Gangs was released, it may not've worked; but the world was in that place, and hence, there was an almost terrifyingly alien discomfort in the act of following a personal narrative for two hours, then finding that this narrative didn't matter worth shit, and that much, much greater forces of dissonance were at work that would dwarf, engulf and defeat protagonist and antagonist alike. It was a risky gambit, and it didn't work for a lot of people, but one of the most eloquent critiques of said gambit was written by the man who went on to script Dreamcatcher, so evidently said gambit had some merit afterall. It worked on me anyways.

The reason I mention Gangs of New York is because the final shot damn near ruined the whole movie for me, in that it should have been the second-to-last shot. 25th Hour not only contains the EXACT shot Gangs of New York ought to have ended with, but it extends it into an entire opening title sequence. (Viewing of the ending of Gangs of New York followed by the beginning of 25th Hour will clarify my rather laughable attempt to tell Martin Scorsese how to do his job).

Extensive focus-grouping on my part ( reveals that not many people thought 25th Hour was much of a 9/11 movie. Apparently the movie has token mentions of 9/11 without actually addressing the themes raised by the event; Monty Brogan, I am told, has actually nothing to do with America on September the 11th, 2001. The book, after all, was written before then.

Which is utter bullshit. 25th Hour is amazing because it manages to condense 9/11 anxiety into a story that's not about 9/11, but is about everything we ought to be thinking post-9/11.

Monty is a drug dealer. He makes his money, as Barry Pepper points out (while demanding that we forget Battlefield Earth once and for all and pay him respect - bastard), off the miseries of others. Despite this, he's really a great guy: warm-hearted, cool, loyal and passionate. We like him because there are so many reasons to like him, and we don't forgive him the fact that he's sustained a living by fucking people over, but we're willing to see the humanity underlying his actions. It's easy, to paraphrase James Ellroy, to love Monty with a passion - but he is a dark, screwed-up guy, and anyone who doesn't think so is criminally insane or retarded.

Monty has to atone for letting his life go off the rails. Monty has 24 hours before the shit hits the fan. Monty's countdown is set against the timeline of New York counting up from 9/11, played neatly against the film's other little timelines (down to the legal age, up from slavery, of seven years against eternity). We love Monty, because Ed Norton does a bang-up job of depicting him. But Lee never tries to paint him as more innocent than he is - just as, throughout his career, Lee has never tried to paint America as innocent.

And this - largely ignored - little analogy, is the reason that the aforementioned Wailing Muslim Chant scene, for all its cliche, is powerful: Pepper's stone-cold condemnation of Monty's can't-go-home-again fate, set against the backdrop of Ground Zero? Just how obvious does it have to be here? By the time we're into Brian Cox's beautiful projected happy ending, and, yep, I'm cryin' in my seat because it's such a wistful, wishful way for it to end, and then JUST when it gets too much, we cut back to Norton, bruised and still in the real world, the whole thing has, frankly, succeeded admirably in conveying a rather difficult truth. It's not coming back. We (fine, I won't count myself in the American We, though I do still love the country - but we the West) can't get the world back, because mistakes were made, and we can deliver the celebrated "fuck everything" speech all we like, but it's always going to end with the fact that we're partly to blame.

Through powerful actors, giving standout performances of solid material, Lee manages to present the message without being a Message Film; through not polarising the issue and coldly condemning America (as he never has), he adds 25th Hour to a career of American film intelligently critiquing America's shortcomings.