Maybe it’s too violent, too harsh, a bit rough around the edges. Maybe director Tony Kaye‘s methods aren’t always very subtle, maybe the film’s kind of preachy. Forget all that hooey for a second and answer me this: how many movies suck you in, smack you behind the head, kick you in the nuts and actually make you think? Cause that’s where it’s at: nowadays, it’s unfortunately often necessary to scream and punch in the walls to make an impression. I agree that it’d be nice if filmmakers could send a message in more cerebral ways, but do you think it would be as effective? Some of the most thought-provoking, socially relevant movies I’ve seen were aggressive and advanced potentially dangerous thought processes like Oliver Stone’s “Talk Radio” or Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X”. But the thing is, these movies made me realize important stuff. In the light of all this, maybe you’ll understand better why I admire “American History X”, a powerful film which was widely dismissed by pretentious nay-sayers.
The film stars the electrifying Edward Norton in his best performance to date. This is only his fifth movie, but he has already proved himself a versatile and arresting presence on screen. He plays Derek Vineyard, a smart kid who took the wrong path. Was it because his father was murdered by Blacks, or was it just because he had too much anger in him? Or is it a bigger problem, with society alienating people and almost forcing them to find someone to blame? “American History X” is about the vicious circle of hate, about how violence just spawns more violence. It’s like, Blacks caught in poor ghettos feel oppressed by the Man, and they take it out on white kids. Then these kids who constantly get beat up start hating Blacks altogether, gang member or not. And it just takes a manipulative, wrongly intentioned fuck-up like Cameron, a middle-aged white supremacist who warps the minds of confused teenagers into thinking that the way to solve their problems is to get back explosively at Blacks, Jews, Asians or whoever’s different. The film has Derek falling into that nonsense, blinded by his being pissed off. And since he’s actually smart and articulate, he’s able to woo plenty of other young people to his cause, as he becomes a local skinhead hero.
Norton plays this raging neo-Nazi with unsettling conviction, spitting hateful propaganda and brutally letting his feelings out. Some scenes are so violent they’re barely watchable. But what’s even more scary is how convincing and charismatic Norton can be, to the point where you can understand how someone vulnerable and weak of mind might want to believe what he says and follow him all the way. Through effective broken storytelling, first-time director Tony Kaye assuredly shows us Norton as a dangerous lost soul in riveting black&white vignettes, while describing his present struggle to redeem himself and save his kid brother (“Terminator 2″‘s Edward Furlong, who’s growing into an interesting young actor) from taking the hellish path that took him to rock bottom. The movie is always gripping and rich, and I found the evolution of Norton’s character enlightening and believable. The acting is thoroughly superior (the actors playing skinheads are disturbingly convincing in their senseless rage and prejudice), and Kaye’s direction is surprisingly masterful. There was some talk about how Kaye and Norton fought in the editing room, with the English director considering taking his name off the piece, but whatever that was about, American History X remains one of the pictures which had the most impact on me in quite a while, and Norton should have gotten that damn Oscar for his brilliant, unforgettable interpretation.