The earnest neo-Nazi melodrama American History X has lots of
problems, but Edward Norton isn't one of them. It may sound rash to call
Norton the best screen actor of his generation after just a handful of
roles in two years' time. Yet Norton has quickly demonstrated a range and
intensity that shames most of his peers, coupled with an innate likability
that convinces audiences to follow him down some pretty dark avenues. In
American History X, he uses every ounce of his appeal to keep us
from writing off a character we should rightly despise; his effort helps
turn an often overwrought drama into an affecting, even powerful one.
Norton's Derek Vinyard isn't anywhere around when his younger brother,
Danny (Edward Furlong, who excels at the troubled-adolescent roles Sal
Mineo once played), faces suspension from high school for writing an
admiring paper on Mein Kampf. But the principal (Avery Brooks),
Derek's own former teacher, recognizes the older sibling's influence.
After the brothers' fireman dad was killed at random in a black
neighborhood, Derek bulked up and became the ardent disciple of a
radical-right hatemonger (Stacy Keach in a small but effective role). He
started organizing the other disaffected, impoverished white kids in his
Venice Beach neighborhood into a tight-knit clan of skinheads. And when
Derek caught two black thieves trying to steal his car, he doled out a
sentence. He gunned down one and "curbed" the other--made the thief lie
face down and open-mouthed on a curb, so his teeth grated on the concrete.
Then Derek stomped the back of his head.
Instead of punishing Danny, the principal proposes an alternative--a
personally supervised history class called "American History X." The first
assignment: Write about Derek and the influence he's had upon Danny's life.
That sounds easy, since Derek is getting out of jail for the two killings
that day. But after his eye-opening prison stay, the newly released Derek
isn't the same person who relished beating blacks and destroying ethnic
For American History X to work, both as drama and as social
commentary, the actor playing Derek must convince us of his anger and
ruthlessness before prison. Yet he must also show us a human being
underneath all that hate and bluster, or his eventual change of character
won't wash. Edward Norton does both brilliantly. Viewers who remember him
as the lovesick Jimmy Stewart-ish beanpole in Everyone Says I Love
You will be shocked by his transformation here into a ticking bomb. But
they shouldn't be. Norton doesn't disappear into a role; rather, he fills
it with so much alertness, physical detail, and urgency that he and the
The flashback structure allows Norton to play Derek at varying stages.
As Derek buys into white power, Norton tightens his gestures and posture,
and the effect is like watching a snapshot develop into a hardened image.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the contrast between the stooped, crying
kid who lashes out at his father's killers and the muscular tough who
stalks chin and chest first onto a neighborhood basketball court. Norton's
performance is rich in these and much smaller details--the different way he
handles a gun before and after prison, for example, or the regretful look
he gives himself in a mirror, using a hand to hide his swastika-ed
In its sincere, muckraking tone, American History X resembles one
of Stanley Kramer's problem dramas from the 1950s and '60s--especially
Pressure Point, in which psychiatrist Sidney Poitier tries to find
out what motivates a rabid Nazi (Bobby Darin!). The screenwriter, David
McKenna, makes a good, honest stab at addressing the roots of hate crime,
something the recent Apt Pupil fumbled miserably. He details how the
Vinyards learned bigotry at the kitchen table, and he demonstrates how
fear, poverty, and neglect spawn racism of all kinds. Here, as elsewhere,
Norton's performance adds verisimilitude: It's startling to hear him
espouse white supremacy as forcefully as he defended the First Amendment in
The People Vs. Larry Flynt.
Needless to say, this isn't material that needs to be hyped up for shock
value. Unfortunately, that doesn't stop the director, Tony Kaye, who also
photographed--a bad combination. American History X made headlines
recently when Kaye engaged in a bitter fight with New Line Studios over the
final cut. Kaye tried to remove his name from the film, and the Director's
Guild refused; the director is now suing, claiming that Norton (who
coproduced) recut the film himself to make his part bigger.
It's nearly impossible to determine who was responsible for what. But if
Kaye gets credit for the handsome black-and-white camerawork that separates
past from present, he also gets the blame for the many artsy flourishes
that corrupt everything they touch. The hero takes one of those purifying
slow-motion showers that benefits nobody but Culligan, and anytime we're
meant to be suitably horrified, the film drops to half-speed and slathers
on the opera music. (Anne Dudley's bombastic score constitutes an assault
Worst of all is a garishly filmed skinhead riot in an ethnic grocery. As
the looters pour milk over a terrified cashier's head (to make her white),
the scene goes on for such a prettily photographed eternity that our anger
shifts from the skins to the director. This sort of aestheticized brutality
is no small matter: It exploits and falsifies the vicious acts it condemns.
If Norton indeed OK'd the final cut, he deserves blame for not leaving this
crap on the cutting-room floor.
Especially since the most telling moments in American History X
are the least rabid. McKenna gives Derek several provocative speeches that
blur the line where conservatism ends and fascism begins: When he talks
about why Rodney King deserved his beating, or why people need to clear the
undesirables from their neighborhoods, lots of viewers will likely
agree--to a point. It's how far along we're willing to go that makes the
movie so compelling. We can sit and watch Nazi goons beat an Hispanic clerk
and never feel the slightest pang of recognition. But when the same goons
lower their voices and start talking about personal responsibility, and
safe streets, and protecting jobs, the movie hits home with a
At the very least, see American History X for Edward Norton's
fine work. And give the movie points for never succumbing to the lazy
nihilism that informs Very Bad Things, Your Friends and
Neighbors, Happiness, and the other Angry White Guy movies of
recent months. The ending is harsh (and a bit too carefully foreshadowed),
but it reinforces the movie's tough theme: Hatred is an investment that
always pays back.