A profound, haunting film, 25th Hour is the first post-9/11 piece of art that tackles that very trickiest of subject matters better than any song, poem or TV episode possibly could.

It doesn’t rouse our rabble like a Toby Keith anthem, preach to us like a West Wing episode or well up our sadness like a Bruce Springsteen ballad. Instead, Spike Lee’s film channels into an abstract notion of unease that still resonates in all of us even a year-and-a-half after the events.

The film’s subtlety is one of the last things to be expected from Lee, a powerful and talented filmmaker nevertheless all too prone to hammering audiences over the head with his third-act themes. On a narrative level, the conclusion to 25th Hour is obvious. But it’s an emotional and narrative haymaker that’s stunningly filmed and merely a feather in the cap to a fascinating movie.

Connections with Sept. 11 arise alongside a more conventional-sounding narrative. Edward Norton plays Monty Brogan, a convicted drug dealer who wants to spend his last day before imprisonment with his two best friends (Barry Pepper and Philip Seymour Hoffman) — the former an alpha male stockbroker and the latter a sexually insecure high school teacher. This trio, along with Monty’s girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), goes out for one last night out.

Lee, along with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, has created a film that alternates between a lucid dream and a pre-imprisonment eulogy for Monty. The masterpiece is the extended nightclub scene, with its high-wattage blue and white lights and Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines” on the soundtrack. Equal to Martin Scorsese in matching music to movie, Lee creates a whirligig here.

Occasionally rising to the surface in the story are slight thriller hints, but Lee thankfully directs them toward the rear. 25th Hour is filled with long diatribes and dialogues, but all the characters have intriguing problems and the script’s talky quality isn’t grating. Subsequently, all of its actors are in fine form, particularly Norton who’s had a run of disappointments lately.

The urgency of 25th Hour is connected with the short fuse shared by all of its characters. But its poignancy is the surprising, subtle way it weaves in human choice and responsibility with the events of Sept. 11. Although it takes place in New York, it’s not merely a movie for New Yorkers.

No matter how brief, every one of us feels those brief pangs of uncertainty for where we’re going as a country. 25th Hour is both Lee’s condemnation of and valentine to what we’ve done before, but also a strangely inspiring reminder of how beautiful the mere opportunity to choose can be.