25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002) and The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008) both take an utterly humane look at a man nearing the end of his life as he knows it. The protagonist in both the films is the kind of man people love to hate and revile, pour scorn on, and otherwise consider the scum of the earth.
Where the Spike Lee film is about the last day before a drug dealer in New York goes to jail, the Aronofsky film is about a showbiz wrestler (one of those who fight choreographed and fake battles in the ring with dialogue and spectacle). Both films are remarkable in that they succeed in humanizing and bringing depth to the kind of person who are generally considered to only have a shallow, dark side.
In 25th Hour, the director juxtaposes the drug dealer's life with his other so-called normal friends (who don't pay the price of their mistakes, whereas he does). This film does not say anything overtly, is more subtle in what it wants to show us. Many critics have justly admired the two amazing stream of consciousness scenes in this film (the first in the protagonist's mind as he pours out his contempt for others as a means of validating himself, and the second in his father's mind as he pours out his fatherly fantasy of letting his son escape the law). Both are poignant in their own way, the second much more because its canvas is far more extended.
In The Wrestler, the director illustrates not just the inner life of the wrestler himself, but also the inner life of a lap dancing woman. It is obvious to see the connection. Both are subjecting their body to a voyeuristic and superficially entertaining abuse in order to make their living. But the similarity ends there. The woman knows that hers is a false life but the wrestler, unable to find any succour in his actual relationships, turns, tragically, back to the ring in order to find meaning and sympathy. In one of the most devastating scenes in recent films, he fights his final battle with a man who, while beating him and taking a beating from him, shows great empathy and understanding towards him during the fight. I mean, who could have thought that these muscle-bound neanderthals could have such depth of character, and while fighting?
Man is complex, and his motivations are complicated. To see a man as evil just because he made a socially reprehensible choice, or because he slipped somewhere where most people don't, is to ignore his vastness, his essential similarity with the rest of us.
And of course, Mickey Rourke and Edward Norton are a pleasure to watch in their performances in the respective films.