Tuesday, July 16, 2013

My Favorite Scene: 25th Hour

Spike Lee’s 25th Hour is a perfect film made by a passionate genius. It’s a movie I come back to often – for inspiration, entertainment, cinematic replenishment – you name it. I love everything about it, and picking a single favorite scene is no easy feat.

The film is inarguably notorious for two sequences: Edward Norton’s extended, lacerating, appropriate “Fuck You” monologue to himself, and the brutal “I need you to make me ugly” testament of friendship. Those scenes are locked; forever imprinted as classic moments of contemporary cinema. As is, in my opinion, Barry Pepper and Philip Seymour Hoffman verbally dismantling their friend and each other for four unbroken minutes as a gutted Ground Zero rests below them.

Unforgettable moments of an unforgettable film. But they’re far from my favorite.

One of the things I respect most about 25th Hour is its patience in setting up its characters. Roughly 20 minutes into the film, after we’ve met Norton’s doomed drug dealer, and Hoffman’s conflicted teacher, the film inadvertently cuts to a new world. A world established by frantic chatter, ceaseless phone ringing, an ice cold tonal hue, and, most prominently, the very anguished eyes of Francis Xavier Slaughtery.

The swollen-eyed Francis (played by Pepper) is focused intently on the day’s unemployment numbers. Francis is a big time New York bond trader and on this particular morning, he’s gambled $100 million dollars on the hope of a low unemployment number. What a low unemployment number is, and how is it achieved, is beyond me. Doesn’t matter. What matters is the man. The character before us. The brash, aggressive, compulsive predator on the screen. Spike Lee and his screenwriter, David Benioff (who also penned the marvelous novel on which the film is based), want us to know Francis from frame one. And know him we do.
To describe the effectiveness of the scene is to really bring three aspects of filmmaking into the mix: acting, writing, and cinematography. Barry Pepper is a fine actor who is rarely given a role that demands all of his skill. Fortunately for us, Francis is such a role, and it remains Pepper’s finest to date. Just watch Pepper here, I mean really fucking watch him. Watch the way he so expertly lets his nerves manipulate the character. Constantly taking swigs from his Red Bull, squeezing the ever-loving shit out of a Pinky, talking down to a mail boy, becoming subtly furious after his coworker insults him – it’s all so authentic.

Moments later, Francis’ boss, Sal (played by Lee regular, and former stockbroker, Al Palagonia) approaches Francis, and those three aspects of filmmaking I mentioned really take off. Sal starts bitching Francis out for his impulsiveness, which results in one of the best work-related chew outs I’ve ever heard. “You come in here drinking your red bullshit, you stink like booze, you’re out all night partying – and that’s okay. But when you become a cowboy, that’s when I draw the line.” Just brilliant.
During Palagonia’s tirade, the actor’s reflection can be seen next to him, sometimes bleeding into his own dominating figure. When the camera cuts to Pepper, it’s the same thing – as if Pepper’s face is being reflected off of Palagonia’s torso. Which… it is. I have no idea why genius cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto opted to use large panes of glass during this scene for effect, but Christ does it work.

The 25th Hour DVD contains two separate commentary tracks, one from Lee and another from Benioff. On Lee’s track, I learned that this scene was shot on a set, which makes me respect the heaping clutter of boxes, exposed wires, monitors and overly caffeinated young men that much more. Benioff’s track offers even better insight. The writer recalls a memory from when he visited a friend on a bond-trading floor in downtown Manhattan:

“It’s an interesting place, the trading floor. Lot of testosterone. You don’t see any women. You hear a lot of cursing, lot of people yelling into telephones, lot of locker room posturing. It’s very competitive, and I thought it was kind of fun, too.”

Kind of fun, indeed, my friend.


22 comments:

  1. That is a great scene. To think that of all the people from Battlefield Earth, he was the one that got a career out of that piece of shit film. He's so good in this film and he needs to be in some better films.

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    1. So glad you like this scene. It is amazing that he was able to break away from the Battlefield Earth catastrophe. I really wish he was given better roles. Dude has mad skill.

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  2. I thought it was going to be that scene towards the end where Monty makes Francis beat him up. Now that was one of several scenes from 25th Hour that stuck with me.

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  3. This is a great introduction to his character, and a fantastic scene to boot. While the reflection effect works very well, the actors totally bring it. Awesome choice man.

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    1. Thanks buddy. Glad to hear you're a fan of this scene. Pepper totally kills it.

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  4. "the brutal “I need you to make me ugly” testament of friendship. Those scenes are locked; forever imprinted as classic moments of contemporary cinema."

    I really like this film, but I really disliked that scene, to the point that it retroactively mars a lot of what I like about the rest of the film. The execution is okay, but I hate the very idea of the scene (any scene reinforcing that rape culture in prison is normal rubs me the wrong way), not to mention that Ed Norton is hardly a pretty actor, so it doesn't even feel genuine. The fact that it comes at the end of the film also grants it such import, as though it's the culmination of the narrative, which feels cheap for me. I get that thematically it works as him accepting his punishment, sort of, but it has always rubbed me the wrong way.

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    1. This is a very interesting comment. I hate thinking that rape is the norm in prison as well, but that is unfortunately the way it is, especially in maximin security facilities. Also, despite how un/attractive Norton is as a famous person, there is simply no denying that if a guy who look liked him went to Otisville, his life would be ruined. He'd be violated in every way possible, many times over, probably until he was dead. Again, unfortunate, but true.

      I guess we just have drastically different views of the scene, which is perfectly okay. That scene truly rocks me.

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  5. When I clicked on this post I was expecting Monty's mirror monologue, Brian Cox's narration over the ending, the club scene, Monty being made ugly or the Ground Zero scene. I'd never really thought about this scene being key but on my next re-watch, which no doubt will be soon since I can't get enough of 25th Hour, I will definitely pay close attention to this scene. Pepper also seems like a good pick for In Character.

    The "best" scene is probably the mirror monologue or the ending, but my favourite has to be the club scene with the 3 double dolly shots. Nothing beats the look of utter distress on Philip Seymour Hoffman's face while the song in the club has the lyric "But it's all right we can still go on" repeated continuously". And of course there is that gorgeous blue lighting which seems to reference the opening credits.

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    1. You're so right, it is nearly impossible to pick a favorite scene from this film. I will agree that the "best" sequence is the mirror one. I can't even begin to argue against that. But there's something that's always captivated me about the scene I wrote about.

      Either way, the point is that 25th Hour is a great film. Start to finish, every single scene works perfectly.

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  6. You're making me want to see this movie again. I might see if my son wants to watch it with me. He seems to share my delight in ragy and generally nutty movie characters. Outstanding post!

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    1. Thanks! I seriously can't watch this movie enough. It continues to reveal itself to me in the best possible way. Hope your son likes it!

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  7. Convinced me to give this a re-watch!

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  8. Brian Cox's monologue at the end was my favorite part. Just felt so powerful after everything that was built up to that point.

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    1. That's a great moment. So precise and detailed.

      "Brooklyn to the Pacific in three days. Just enough money for gas, sandwiches, and coffee, but we made it."

      I love that line.

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    2. ''You all came so close to never happening.''

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    3. This life came so close to never happening.

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  9. My favorite moment from 25th Hour would probably be the scene when Monty starts ranting after he stares into the mirror and notices 'FUCK YOU' inscription.

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    1. That is the "best" scene in the movie, agree. I love that moment.

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  10. Hell yes a great introduction to a great character. I was puzzled by the reflections too, almost like the two are reverse images of each other. My guess, that it is reinforcing the theme of people imprinting themselves on other people's lives. In that instance, Francis was acting like a ruthless stock trader because of the effect his co-worker and the atmosphere of his work have on him. However, when he's with Monty he a nearly completely different caring person, it's just the effect that his childhood friend has on him. We all act differently towards the people in our lives, we can project many personalities to many people. Great actor, performance and scene, perfect movie.

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    1. Awesome comment here, Jeff. I always love hearing your theories about why certain things are in certain films. I had never thought of the reflections like that, but man, I think you are spot on. Great insight there.

      So glad you're a fan of this scene.

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