In 'Stone,' which hit DVD and Blu-ray yesterday, Edward Norton plays a convicted arsonist who offers up his beautiful wife (Milla Jovovich) to his soon-to-retire parole officer (Robert DeNiro) in an effort to gain an early release from prison. Some guy, right?
That role ties in nicely to what is arguably Norton's best role, as a convicted drug dealer facing a 7-year prison term in Spike Lee's '25th Hour,' released in 2002. If 'Stone' shows that bad people can become even worse after they've been imprisoned for years and years, '25th Hour' persuasively shows the other side of the coin: What if just the threat of prison is enough to cause someone who has taken the wrong path to go straight?
Norton made '25th Hour' at roughly the midway point of his career, so far. He smashed his way into public consciousness 15 years ago with his blood-curdling performance in 'Primal Fear,' in which he played an altar boy accused of murder. He outright stole the picture from the leads, Richard Gere and Laura Linney; all you wanted to do was watch the kid. (Norton was 26, but he looked much younger.) He seemed to have sprung fully-formed from the air, though he had an interest in the dramatic arts since childhood and had acted in stage productions in New York and Los Angeles after graduating from Yale University.
By the time he appeared in '25th Hour,' Norton had moved from supporting roles in 'The People vs. Larry Flynt' and 'Everyone Says I Love You' to starring roles in 'Rounders,' 'American History X' and 'Fight Club,' directed his first feature, 'Keeping the Faith' (a charming comedy), survived 'The Score' and 'Death to Smoochy,' and starred in 'Red Dragon.'
'25th Hour' began life as a novel, the first by David Benioff, who has since become a successful screenwriter, but at the time was teaching at a college in California. Tobey Maguire acquired the rights to the book before it was published in 2001, with an eye toward starring in it. Instead, Maguire became 'Spider-Man' and Norton became Monty Brogan.
In a pre-credits sequence, Monty rescues a badly-injured stray dog that's been left for dead. It's a short scene, allowing us to get a sense of Monty as a well-dressed, confident yet sensitive guy. After the elegant main titles, which establish the post-9/11 setting of the movie in New York City, we see a different Monty with the same dog early in the morning. The dog is healed up and healthy; Monty is lost deep in thought. One unpleasant encounter with a jittery junkie later, and we get a different sense of who Monty might be.
Eventually we learn that Monty, now 31 years of age, drifted into drug dealing while in high school. His father (Brian Cox) is an alcoholic who is now sober and owns a bar. His mother died when he was 11. He's been convicted of a felony and must report to prison the next day. His girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) has stuck with him but might have been the one that turned him in to the police. His best friends Frank (Barry Pepper) and Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) don't know how to deal with him or support him, but have promised to be there for him on his last night of freedom.
And then there's the little matter of the drug kingpin who wants to talk with him.
Norton has one truly stand-out scene, in which Monty's mirror image in a men's bathroom starts cursing out the entire city of New York, every borough, every possible ethnicity, every religion, every friend ... ending with Monty cursing himself: "You had it all, and you threw it away."
(Here's the scene, which is, most definitely, very NSFW.)
Monty can still muster his self-confident swagger, though it's now shot through with doubt, fear, anger, and self-recrimination. He's alternately tender and tough with Naturelle, gentle and supportive with the fragile Jacob, firm and frank with his father. In one scene with Frank, he pours out his deepest fear -- that he's not tough enough to survive in prison, that's he'll never survive his term -- yet ends up comforting his friend, who realizes that he hasn't been the best of friends to Monty.
Perhaps the best indication of Norton's power and strength and range as an actor is that he deftly conveys all of Monty's moods without overdoing the emotions. Certainly there are scenes that call for a deep reserve of feeling, but they emerge from within the character without calling undue attention to themselves. You always have a sense that Monty is dealing with each of the other characters in a different way, according to the nature of their relationship, and is actually responding to the situation or the conversation as it changes and develops, rather than reciting the words off a page.
Here's an example, a flashback where we first see young Monty conducting business, and then casually striking up a conversation with a schoolgirl.
(The other girl is played by Vanessa Ferlito.)
That's a tribute, especially, to Benioff's script, Spike Lee's direction, and the other performers (including Anna Paquin as a teenage student who tempts Jacob, her teacher). Monty is such a strong presence that even when he is not on screen, we feel his absence. Which is something I didn't recall, off-hand, from previous viewings, but that allows the other actors to fire up sparks on their own, notably in scenes between Pepper and Hoffman, Pepper and Dawson, and Hoffman and Paquin. (Paquin replaced another actress at the last moment, but had the advantage of having worked with Hoffman as her director in a recent stage production.)
For much of the running time, '25th Hour' feels like an ensemble piece, with scenes alternating between Monty doing something, and then his friends doing something. Several flashbacks are integrated smoothly, and the whole picture hangs together very well. For a movie that, at the time, felt very much of the moment, it's aged not at all and remains a timely snapshot of American cinema.
Watching the movie again, what strikes me about Norton's performance is that it feels an organic part of the whole. You can't yank it out and insert someone else into that slot -- much less imagine Tobey Maguire as Monty -- any more than you could subtract Terence Blanchard's mournful musical score or Rodrigo Prieto's fluid cinematography or Barry Michael Brown's ace editing work or James Chinlund's sublime production design.
As Monty, Norton charms and regrets and punishes and finally comes to a knowledge about himself. He doesn't like what he sees. He's 31 years old and he's facing 7 years in prison and he might not survive. But he's finally facing up to the music. And that's because of Norton, in collaboration with a talented team of performers and filmmakers.
Norton established a gold standard with his performance in '25th Hour,' one that's even better, in my opinion, than his amazing performances in 'American History X' and 'Fight Club.' Happily, he's just 41 years of age, so we can look forward to many more good performances. Maybe one or two (or more) will surpass '25th Hour.'
The bar has been set.