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25th Hour

A little king of New York turned outcast princeling, Edward Norton wanders through a purgatory of his own design in the Spike Lee-directed 25th Hour, enjoying (if the word applies) one last day of freedom before serving a seven-year sentence on felony drug charges. The story, which David Benioff adapted from his own novel, unfolds mostly over the course of that one day, but it's enough to reveal a lifetime. The gifted son of an Irish firefighter-turned-bartender (Brian Cox), Norton entered his ill-fated life of crime one easy step at a time. Neither the quiet disapproval of his lifelong friends (Barry Pepper, as a high-stakes stockbroker, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, as a lonely high-school English teacher) nor the love of a good woman (Rosario Dawson) could steer him away from it. From a tasteful Manhattan apartment, beneath an unknowingly ironic Cool Hand Luke poster, he became an inconspicuous criminal, the drug lord as Harper's subscriber. Now his reign has ended, and the business of living has become considerably less pleasant. Telling what's essentially a story of introspection, Lee lets Norton drape his reflections over a whole city. Norton and his friends go about their day against the backdrop of a New York still unsteady from the recent attacks of Sept. 11, a phase in the city's history captured in The 25th Hour with almost journalistic detail. Where a less disciplined filmmaker might have used this merely to echo his characters' frames of mind, Lee sets up a complicated relationship between the city and its inhabitants, particularly Norton, who at one point explodes in a hateful monologue that barely hides the love beneath it. But love it or hate it, he knows he has to leave it, and that knowledge gives every moment a clear sense of urgency. It doesn't hurt that all of the performances are, at the least, remarkable. Norton creates a character who seems fully capable of the offenses he commits, and just as capable of the crippling regret he struggles to keep at bay. After all, one small change anywhere along the line, and things could have turned out differently. The film at its simplest serves as a cautionary tale, but it also functions as a meditation on how little it takes to redirect a life by choice or by chance: A woman could fall for a shameless volley of flirting, or a sideline business dealing pot could turn into a career dealing heroin, or a plane could fall from the sky, or the police could knock on the door and everything could change.

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