Courtesy Photo
3 stars 118 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, October 30, 1998
Directed by Tony Kaye

Starring Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Beverly Diangelo, Avery Brooks, Jennifer Lein, Stacy Keach & Fairuza Balk


There is a scope to this picture that might not come across with the same impact on the small screen -- especially in pan & scan -- but it's still a powerful, though-provoking piece.

Case study in Neo-Nazism driven by powerhouse Edward Norton peformance

By Rob Blackwelder

"American History X" might have seemed slightly contrived without a formidable, unsettling and ultimately sympathetic performance by Edward Norton, who stars as a reformed Neo-Nazi parolee trying to rescue his younger brother from the clutches of a White Power street gang.

Norton, who made an indelible impression in his first film role as a murder suspect in "Primal Fear" and has yet to disappoint, is pensive and provoking in the movie's present and terrifying in its flashbacks of his gang days. Buffed up to about 190 pounds, with a shaved head, swastika tattoo, biker goatee and a feral, angry gaze, he is one scary as hell image. The kind of guy most people would cross the street to avoid after one glance.

Something of a case-study in American bigotry, about half the film takes place in these flashbacks, laced throughout the story, recounting how Derek Vinyard (Norton) slid into Neo-Nazism as a teenager before going to prison for brutally murdering a pair of black burglars, and how his time in prison forced him to examine his lifestyle and his philosophy.

In the film's present, a changed Derek has just been released and in an attempt to tear his teenage brother (Edward Furlong) away from a life of hate and violence, runs the risk of getting killed by standing up to his former associates and the white supremacist who helped shape him (Stacy Keach, putting his potent glower to excellent use).

Furlong also leaves quite an impression as a defiant kid who has adopted the racist philosophy fed to him but in his heart isn't comfortable with it. He demonstrates his loyalty, writing a paper championing Hitler for a history class, just as other kids might Martin Luther King, Jr. or Caesar Chavez. But he admits when pressured by his principal (a perfectly-cast Avery Brooks, "Deep Space Nine"), who has taken a special interest in the boy, that living up to his brother's reputation is what drives his behavior.

Although Furlong and the entire cast turn in superlative performances, it's Norton that floats the film. In a grainy, black and white past, we see Derek angry over the his father's senseless shooting death while fire fighting in Compton and suddenly the racist rhetoric dad had instilled in him in his teens boils over. Reacting to the news of his father's murder, in one scene Norton turns from timid exasperated tears to uncontainable hate and rage before our eyes.

Taken under the Keach's wing, Derek blossoms into an intelligent, intimidating tough who is not just a venomous zealot, but one who can argues his point of view with reason and conviction.

Again, Norton is the key to such scenes. He plays Derek's natural leadership beautifully, rallying dissatisfied young punks with initially reasonable socio-political rhetoric then whipping them into a froth by gradually mixing in race-baiting remarks that become more and more barbaric the more agitated he gets. He becomes a brute in his own home as well, bullying his cancer-stricken mother (Beverly D'Angelo) and his liberal sister (Jennifer Lein).

Directed by film freshman Tony Kaye, "American History X" employs some audacious and creative storytelling. A white-on-black game of blacktop basketball, played for neighborhood domination, is deliberately presented like the climax of an action movie, with a triumphant soundtrack trumpeting the white gang's win. The scene is designed both to provoke and to present, unadulterated, the vile rapture felt by the winners.

The prison scenes, which are of particular importance because they are where we witness Derek's gradual change of heart, are deliberately on edge and hold an atmosphere of danger. Only when he's working in the laundry room, where no one can see the friendship he's formed with a wise and wisecracking black prisoner, does the audience feel he's safe.

Kaye's orchestration of the tension in the film is incisive and terrifically effective, and thankfully he tries to not beat the audience over the head with a philosophical message. But in order for the film to be properly tragic, you know there's some kind of emotional whammy coming at some point, and as such the movie gets predictable in the last reel, practically screaming "author's message!" as it draws to a close.

But this may not be Kaye's fault. The film taken away from him by studio heads at New Line Cinema when he refused to make changes to their liking, leaving one to wonder if his cut was more powerful (and more subtle) in its impact.

Still, a story such as this could have easily been turned into a milquetoast message movie for TV and ruined completely. My guess is Kaye's vision survived largely intact despite his protests.

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