American History X
1998, R, 118 min. Directed by Tony Kaye. Starring Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Fairuza Balk, Elliott Gould, Jennifer Lien, Stacy Keach, William Russ, Avery Brooks, Beverly D'Angelo.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 13, 1998
Why Tony Kaye was so eager to have his name taken off this film (and replaced with “Humpty Dumpty”) is a question only Kaye can answer, and not very well if the recent spate of elliptical interviews with the eccentric British advertisement auteur can be relied upon. Certainly, American History X isn't the travesty Kaye has taken to labeling it. Neither is it the revolutionary redemptive tale filled with Oscar-caliber performances certain members of the media have tagged it as. Instead, it's a violent, sober cautionary tale, strictly middle-of-the-road when it comes to its much-ballyhooed politics and grimly obvious in its telling. And as for the dead-on portrayal of neo-Nazi skinheads, well, it's no Romper Stomper. Norton plays Derek Vinyard, a former skinhead in Venice Beach who, as the film opens, is released from prison after serving a three-year stretch for killing two gangbangers who tried to steal his car. On that same day, Derek's younger brother Danny (Furlong), a budding neo-Nazi himself, has turned in a Hitler-praising school report to his much-aggrieved teacher (Gould). When Danny's principal (Brooks) gets wind of the affront, he gives the boy another assignment: “Write about your brother,” he says, and tell us what you think of him, and what you think of his circumstances. This leads to an ongoing series of black-and-white flashbacks that recount how the older Vinyard came into his own as a Nazi skinhead, and how he, along with local hate-monger Cameron (Keach), founded one of the largest white supremacist gangs in Southern California. The hitch is that Derek's incarceration has changed him utterly. He's no longer interested in the swastika or hanging out and beating up minorities; his time in the joint and the shaky friendships and enemies he made there have left him with a newfound distaste for his old ways. All he wants now is to get out and get his family -- and especially Danny -- away from the corrupting influence of the local skins. Kaye's device of alternating the present-day color footage with the black-and-white flashbacks awkwardly breaks up the forward motion of the narrative. And while the film's ending isn't exactly telegraphed, you know something terrible's going to happen: It's that kind of film. Still, Norton acts up a storm here, infusing his bile-filled speechifying with a zealot's harsh glare, and later, seeming to hunker down within himself as he waits for the unavoidable backlash. Furlong is in full sullen-teen mode, as befits his character, and only Balk, as Derek's histrionically eager skinhead moll, is used to ill advantage. Kaye, for what it's worth, can frame a shot with the best of them, but American History X fails to incite much more than respect for the art of its cinematography and the occasional gasp (the film contains one of the most shocking incidents of character-driven violence in recent memory -- I lurched in my seat and suddenly had need to redefine my personal definition of “jaded”). It's rough stuff, but not revelatory, bitter yet unenlightening.