American History X

Metro Pulse

DIRECTED BY: Tony Kaye

REVIEWED: 11-30-98

Genocide is wrong. Racism is bad. War is hell.

Whenever a producer wants to make a statement about The World Today or feels that compelling urge to make a film for posterity, those are the themes he turns to. They are the kind of big, sweeping declarations that are undoubtedly important and timeless, that inspire brooding scripts and star turns by serious thespians (not to mention lots and lots of Oscar nominations). They're also the kind of obvious generalities that make for the dullest movies on earth.

Oh, how many well-intentioned miles of film have been wrapped around the evils of apartheid, slavery, the Holocaust, the Cold War...Certainly, some of this film stock has amounted to a number of good movies—heck, Steven Spielberg has been running down the entire list himself, with Schindler's List, Amistad, and Saving Private Ryan...and two out of three ain't bad. But for the most part, these epics of the human condition deliver little more than audio visual thesis papers rather than offering the one thing most people go to the movies for: a genuine story.

American History X, the visceral meditation on American bigotry starring Edward Norton, bears all the signs of just such an exercise: early buzz on Norton's Oscar chances, laudatory ad blurbs from real critics ("Explosive!" "Two thumbs up!"), and much public bombast from director and self-described genius Tony Kaye, who was also the film's director of photography and camera operator. But rather than succumb to impersonal platitudes, American History X mostly delivers the goods: strong characters, real conflicts, and a sense of verisimilitude that's as nauseating as it is frightening.

American History X focuses on Southern California's skinhead movement, composed of angry, disaffected punks who find an outlet for their rage in worshipping the ideals of Adolph Hitler. Emblazoned with swastika tattoos and SS regalia, moshing to hardcore racist punk bands, these skinheads revel in becoming the ultimate rebels—American Nazis. But how do these mostly middle-class kids get so mired in hatred? What makes them so damn angry at people who aren't white?

To provide some answers to these questions, screenwriter David McKenna tells the story of Derek Vinyard (Norton), a promising young skinhead leader from Venice, Calif. Intelligent, even charming, he's nevertheless wracked with hatred—his fireman father had been murdered while trying to douse a fire in a crackhouse, and his new mentor became local white power leader Cameron Alexander (an efficiently creepy Stacy Keach). His younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) worships him, even after Derek kills two black car thieves in his family's front yard and is sent to prison. While Derek does his time, Danny becomes Alexander's new protégé and is indoctrinated in the same political philosophies of racial hatred.

Upon Derek's release three years later, he is expected to rejoin his even larger clan of skinheads, a hero to the cause. But instead, he opts out—through a series of harrowing experiences, prison life has actually reformed his way of thinking. But can he save his brother from his own fate?

American History X loops in and out of this story through a series of flashbacks that show the genesis of Derek's hatred and its eventual dissipation. But these aren't just surface sketches—through evocative scenes with his family, we see how he becomes a "monster," and how this affects those around him. Tugging the viewer through this exposition is the sad realization that Derek's monstrousness isn't so hard to understand. In fact, he voices ideas that simply expand on the political rhetoric heard daily on talk radio—only he allows his anger to take physical action against his supposed "enemies."

Credit Norton with making his character more than just a brute—behind his snarl, you can see the remains of someone who was once good-natured, open-minded, and extremely intelligent. In fact, he flashes the magnetism of a fanatic whose obsession both frightens and intrigues, rather than simply repels. Norton is most compelling when he lunges into his diatribes of racial hatred, spewing statistics like missiles while trying to legitimize his anger. In one scene, he rallies his army of skinheads with declarations of how righteous their cause is—and then in the next scene, he leads them into pillaging a Korean grocery. The juxtaposition of words into violence is particularly unsettling.

Tony Kaye, a director of European TV commercials, has disavowed his debut film and has loudly tried to take his name off it. Apparently, he feels his creation was destroyed by New Line Cinema in the editing room—but in this case, I think the artist doesn't know best. Although Kaye's truncated 87-minute version might be interesting, American History X as it stands is a bravura combination of arresting imagery and standout acting. Heavyhanded at times, certainly—but it's nevertheless just the sort of Oscar-winning, important film about The World Today Hollywood ought to be making more of.

--Coury Turczyn

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