Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Review #1,254: 'American History X' (1998)

Watching American History X again 19 years after its release, the sight of Edward Norton's enigmatic frame captured in stark black-and-white quickly reminded me of just why I loved the film so much, and why it was one of the first DVDs I purchased when the transition from VHS was starting to take hold. I was 13 when I first saw the film in 1998, and now I'm 32 with more life experience and many, many more movies under my belt, the cracks and problems with Tony Kaye's tale of brotherly love and neo-Nazism also became apparent. It was something I could never quite put my finger on as a youngster, but the film's main issue is with trying to resolve a lifetime of hate and dysfunction in a single night, and by setting itself such time constraints, over-simplifies an incredibly complex and sensitive subject, although its heart is certainly in the right place.

American History X tells the story of two brothers; Derek (Norton), a charismatic and hardened skin-head freshly released from prison following a brutal double-murder, and Danny (Edward Furlong), an intelligent kid following in the doomed footsteps of the older sibling he admires so much. Danny has just written a paper on Adolf Hitler, glorifying the fascist leader as a civil rights hero. His (black) schoolteacher Dr. Sweeney (Avery Brooks) is outraged, but sets Danny the task of penning a paper on his brother, who had walked free that very morning. Hurrying home to reunite with his hero, Danny finds his brother a changed man. Derek has grown his hair, and no longer proudly displays the swastika tattooed on his torso. Something happened in prison that allowed Derek to let go of his misguided hate, and sets about ensuring that Danny doesn't follow the same path by confronting hate teacher and former ally Cameron (Stacy Keach).

This impeccably-performed and suitably rough-around-the-edges movie is far more successful with depicting Derek's rise to legend-status amongst his gang than it is with handling his drastic change of heart. Despite a rather silly basketball game, the bulk of the black-and-white flashbacks offer a keen and convincing insight into the mind of a highly-intelligent leader of men who has inherited prejudice and hate. When he enters prison following the shocking murder, Derek becomes torn between the hypocritical Aryan Brotherhood and his laundry-room work mate Lamont (Guy Torry). These moments, which are supposed to convince us that a man of Derek's single-mindedness could learn the error of his ways, are reduced to a handful of clumsily-written conversations and a particularly nasty rape. It ultimately fails to deliver on its initial promise, and whether this uneven narrative was the result of Norton being brought in to help with the final edit, causing Kaye to completely disown the film, I couldn't tell you. Despite the glaring flaws, American History X still retains its raw power, and Norton gives a performance of such staggering intensity that he will likely never best it.

Directed by: Tony Kaye
Starring: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Beverly D'Angelo, Ethan Suplee, Fairuza Balk, Avery Brooks, Elliott Gould, Stacy Keach
Country: USA

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

American History X (1998) on IMDb

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