Monty Brogan is a drug dealer. Recently pinched by the Drug Enforcement Administration, he now faces a seven-year stretch in jail in Upstate New York, and the day before he's to leave for prison, he reevaluates his life by visiting old Manhattan haunts, connecting with family and friends and speculating as to who set him up with the DEA. Spike Lee's "25th Hour" follows Monty through this day-in-the-life, one tinged with almost tragic fatalism: He is convinced he won't survive in prison, that young, handsome men like him are walking targets for sexual predators, and his terror leads him to consider suicide or running away forever from the life that he's built.

Such is the premise of "25th Hour," a film that turns out to be much more than the sum of its parts. With supreme control and restraint -- two qualities the director hasn't always exhibited even in his finest work up to now -- Lee delves deeply into Monty's shame and self-loathing, his relationships with his father, friends and lover, and the existential dilemma of a man whose once bright future is now a bleak smudge in his mind. Suffusing the entire drama, both as a backdrop and as the warp and weft of Monty's guilt, is the film's setting of New York immediately following the events of Sept. 11, 2001 -- a city knocked back on its heels, in deep mourning and shock.

Surrounded by the street reliquaries of flags and Xeroxed photographs that stood not just for death and suffering but for heroism and survival, Monty feels that he has betrayed not only those he loves and his own promise, but an entire city whose ruins surround him as a collective rebuke. Among its many artistic achievements, "25th Hour" arrives as the "Rome, Open City" of post-9/11 New York, at once a neorealist, small-scale drama in the tradition of Rossellini and De Sica and a movie that soars into dizzying visual heights. Like "Gangs of New York," to which it makes a perfect historical bookend, "25th Hour" swings for the fences and just witnessing Lee's assurance and courage in making it is as rewarding as the always absorbing results.

Based on David Benioff's novel of the same name and adapted for the screen by the author, "25th Hour" pulls off the extraordinary feat of making moviegoers identify with a morally corrupt protagonist without asking them to like him. Edward Norton delivers an unshowy but brilliantly calibrated performance as Monty, who has slipped into dealing presumably as the path of least resistance. During brief flashbacks the audience sees that he conducted his business in the pseudo-friendly, low-key way that allows dealers and users to believe they're not hurting anybody, least of all themselves.

Also in denial are Monty's beautiful girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), his father, James (Brian Cox), and his best friends, Jakob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Frank (Barry Pepper). Jakob, who now teaches at the prep school the three friends attended, has been too wrapped up in his own fears and obsessions -- currently having to do with a flirtatious student played by Anna Paquin -- to confront Monty on what he does for a living. Frank, a stockbroker, is more outright hostile: Although he wants to be there for Monty on his last free night, he admits that he thinks his friend deserves what's in store for him.

Through its series of confrontations and encounters, "25th Hour" examines the moral implications of Monty's plight, but often viewers find themselves listening in on banal barstool exchanges between young men -- about girls, about money, about sex and careers. Then, just when the audience is lulled into thinking "25th Hour" is another quirky, observant little movie about the way people behave, Lee delivers a scene of breathtaking intensity. Monty's visit to the bathroom of his father's saloon ends with him yelling at himself in the mirror in an anti-New York rant that turns into an aria of enraged self-hatred. (It's like the montage of invectives from "Do the Right Thing" recapitulated by Eminem and Tom Wolfe.)

Later, Jakob and Frank engage in a petty argument in front of Frank's living room window, which overlooks Ground Zero. It's a "hill of beans" moment, one that recalls Bogart's line in "Casablanca" and reminds viewers of the disproportionate scale of Monty's suffering. In his now-signature style, which combines realism with bold, Brechtian breaks with the linear narrative, Lee continually punctuates the action onscreen with surreal shots of people moving dreamily through space or, as with the film's penultimate sequence, highly pitched representations of Monty's inner life.

Soaked with the mournful gravitas of last looks and long goodbyes, "25th Hour" never tips its hand as to where exactly it's going; Lee works up an almost excruciating sense of tension and foreboding as Monty approaches dawn. Benioff's script is suitably subtle and allusive, its digressions artfully drawing the audience further down its mysterious path. Lee's congenital literalism -- in the past often expressed in a tendency to be too on-the-nose, too polemical -- here serves him well, as he penetrates ever more deeply into the music and meaning of every scene. He has elicited consistently extraordinary performances: Norton takes hold of his character with the intelligence and focus we now expect from this gifted actor, but don't overlook Hoffman (in whose hands a simple sigh becomes an exhalation of deep anguish) or Dawson and Pepper, who keep their characters' motivations always a little bit unclear.

Working with cinematographer Rodrigo Pietro, Lee uses his characteristic palette of varying film stocks to create a movie whose very surface is alive with grain and texture; his longtime composer, Terence Blanchard, has composed a magnificent score that achieves the intimacy of Leonard Bernstein's music for "On the Waterfront" (listen to the piano that accompanies the early scenes with Monty and Naturelle) and the exalted emotion of Aaron Copland, whose music accompanied the moving opening sequence of Lee's "He Got Game." Reaching back to such mentors as Martin Scorsese -- whose "Taxi Driver" and "Last Temptation of Christ" are paid homage here -- Lee has nonetheless created a movie very much his own, one that aches with the pain of his times and pulses with the rhythms of his city. But with "25th Hour" Lee is not content to create merely a New York portrait, although surely from this quintessential New York filmmaker that would be welcome enough.

In the startling, unforgettable masterstroke that concludes the movie, Lee starts out by paying homage to one man's home town, but he slowly turns that gesture into a hymn to America, in all its restless energy and outlaw spirit, its love of reinvention and its seductive, elusive dreams. With the small story of a relatively seedy character, Lee has created that rarity in filmmaking: a movie we need, right now.

25th Hour (134 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for strong language and some violence.

Edward Norton stars as Monty Brogan, a drug dealer facing an existential crisis over his imminent departure for prison, in the Spike Lee film.Edward Norton and Rosario Dawson deliver extraordinary performances in "25th Hour" as a drug dealer and his girlfriend who aim for closure before he's sent away to prison.