The short list for ‘greatest contemporary New York filmmaker’ often narrows down to two names: Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese. Both have already made their greatest works (arguably Do The Right Thing [1989] and Mean Streets [1975]) by focusing on their own ethnic communities in New York. Recently however, they have moved on to different aspects of New York. Scorsese gave us the big budget blockbuster Gangs of New York, which was as much about gory fight scenes as it was about the city’s history. Lee’s 25th Hour however, has the feel of an artistic integrity and vision that is often only possible on a much smaller budget. Disney, Lee says, did not interfere. They probably did not dare.

The film follows Monty Brogan’s (Ed Norton) final day as a free man, before he is sent down for a seven year prison term for drug dealing. He is resolved to tie-up loose ends, such as making peace with his father (Brian Cox) and his estranged girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson). He must also find a home for his much loved pitbull mutt Doyle. Meanwhile, two childhood friends from his Irish community, Slaughtery (Barry Pepper) and Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), are throwing him a leaving bash.

The opening credits roll over images of Ground Zero, and specifically the giant blue spotlights that were erected in memory of the Twin Towers. The cold blues of the cinematography are thus immediately established, as is the film’s tone: an aching melancholy and sense of loss entwined with the hard fact that life must continue. The narrative of post 9/11 New York serves as the backdrop for Lee’s unblinking character portrait of Monty. Before Monty arrives at the ‘party’, Jacob asks ‘what do we say to him?’; Slaughtery replies ‘We don’t say anything. He’s going to hell for seven years and nothing we say is gonna change that. We just give him a good send off, that’s all we can do’. This, in many ways, speaks again for the tone of much of the film: the sense of hopelessness and futility. For Slaughtery it is also a feeling of vulnerability, that something beyond his control can puncture the thick surface of his organised and successful life. Again the 9/11 link is clear.

Ed Norton plays Monty as a man very much in control of his emotions and actions, while knowing full-well that this control will soon be torn away from him. Being a pretty white boy, his fate in prison is all too clear. Horrible suggestions litter the script: for example, that inmates will smash his teeth out with an iron bar so that he can give them head all night without fear of being bitten. This makes his relationship with his girlfriend Naturelle on his final day all the more intriguing. Their closeness, it becomes clear, has deteriorated since his arrest, in which he suspects she may have been involved. Yet his sexual estrangement from her is more complex and open to interpretation. He is perhaps moving away from his heterosexual status, subconsciously resigning himself to his forthcoming role in prison. Her beauty also acts as a reminder of the life that he has thrown away, or even the temporary nature of his lifestyle that he had always tried to deny.

The casting of Rosario Dawson is at first glance an obvious choice given her previous work with Lee on He Got Game (1998), yet here Lee has picked her on the verge of a Hollywood breakthrough (see the recent MIB2 and the forthcoming Helldorado). Her role in this film is a masterstroke of mise-en-scène as opposed to strict realistic detail. She is too beautiful for Monty, too graceful for the sweaty dance floor in the club scene, and too ‘Hollywood’ for the cold colours and low-budget nature of this film. She is there as a visual metaphor, a painful reminder of all the issues that Monty must come to terms with. In one incredibly powerful scene Monty has a monologue with himself in the mirror of his father’s bar. He vents his anger at everyone in New York City with a stream of ‘fuck you!’s, using all the racial stereotypes in the book to express a turmoil that is (as with all racist anger) actually interior rather than exterior: his tirade ends, ‘No, Fuck you Monty Brogan, you had it all and then you threw it away!’

There are no choreographed fight scenes, and Leo and Cameron don’t enter the scene engaged in a feisty love affair. In fact, the narrative is fairly sparse, but Spike Lee’s focus on character is deeply penetrating and his style is captivating and graceful (note particularly the way his camera moves through the New York streets). Quite simply, he has created another film that shouts out the power and strength of cinema.