Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Tony Kaye
Stars: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Beverly D’Angelo, Fairuza Balk, Avery Brooks, Elliott Gould, Stacy Keach.
Written by David McKenna, American History X explores the origins of hatred and bigotry, and shows how those attitudes can be passed from one generation to the next. The film shows how frustrated, insecure and impressionable youth are seduced by poisonous ideologies. This is an environment in which violence begets violence, and history repeats itself with tragic consequences. Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) is a vicious white supremist who kills three black youths as they attempt to break into his car. After three years in prison he emerges a changed man. His experiences have taught him tolerance, and he no longer believes in the vile and spurious messages spouted by his mentor (Stacy Keach).
Derek tries to heal the rift within his own family caused by his violent and intolerant actions. He also tries to steer his impressionable younger brother Danny (T2‘s Edward Furlong) away from following a similar path to self-destruction. Danny worships Derek, and, in his absence, has fallen under the spell of the same creed of hatred and intolerance.
British director Tony Kaye makes a solid debut with this powerfully disturbing and controversial portrait of racial hatred and the rising tide of fascism in contemporary America. The odious rhetoric, and some of the characters and scenes, may remind audiences of the repellent Romper Stomper. However, unlike that film, American History X manages to temper its extreme images with a more optimistic message. Given recent events in both England and America, American History X‘s ending has an immediacy that makes its cautionary message even more relevant.
Kaye also doubled as cinematographer, and he captures some powerful images. The extended flashback sequences are filmed in black and white, which somehow gives them added power. One flashback to the crucial murders contains one of the most brutal scenes I’ve seen in any recent movie. Norton apparently had disagreements with Kaye over the direction of the film and reshot portions of it himself.
The pair of dynamic central performances will mesmerise audiences as well as leave them shaken. With his short cropped hair and a swastika tattooed on his chest, Derek cuts a frightening figure. Norton delivers a blistering, volatile, and intelligent performance that explores his contradictions, and builds upon his superb credits in Primal Fear and The People Vs Larry Flynt. Furlong continues to impress with a solid performance that captures Danny’s vulnerability and gives the character some unexpected depths. Keach is a nasty piece of work as the sinister, self-appointed head of a white supremist organisation.
This powerful and often confronting film presents a frightening and genuinely disturbing view of society. Its gut wrenching message and impact here are every bit as effective as films like Boyz N The Hood. This is an important film that demands to be seen.