American History X
Director: Tony Kaye. Cast: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Avery Brooks, Beverly D'Angelo, Fairuza Balk, Stacy Keach, Jennifer Lien, Ethan Suplee, Elliott Gould, Guy Torry, William Russ. Screenplay: David McKenna.

The next time you are asked to define irony, you could do worse than observe the public reaction to American History X. A lacerating and visually audacious examination of stateside neo-Nazism, the film's renunciation by its own ego-tripping director, Tony Kaye, has somehow managed to overshadow one of the most conceptually and stylistically incendiary films of recent years. Woe to a film (and its $2.2 million at the box office means woe, indeed) that tries to speak daringly and persuasively about a punishing national problem and finds itself silenced by, of all things, the steady hum of back-hallway studio gossip.

As with most stories, that of Kaye's disavowal of the picture has at least two sides. Also, as befits a film of such disputed, ambiguous parentage, American History X is a fabulously uneven picture that packs several indelible scenes into a too-often clunky and mechanical framework. Still, some of the American cinema's tastiest dishes have been whipped up by "too many cooks"—Gone With the Wind, anyone?—and while American History X seems hardly destined to be a classic, it deserves at least to be watched and discussed as more than the Director's Guild's puling orphan child.

Like Pleasantville, the other major fall release from New Line, American History X juxtaposes color and black-and-white photography to tell a story of a disrupted, vaguely complacent society that is fundamentally shaken by a youth contingent of noticeably radical ideas. The tones and developments of the two pictures, of course, could hardly be more different, though both films also cast a pair of siblings in the center of the drama. The central figure of American History X is Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton), a lean, strapping man in his 20s who finishes and departs from a three-year prison term on the morning that the film's action commences. Derek's younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) is spending the same morning defending to his high-school principal the truth and validity of his recent book report, which asserts Hitler's Mein Kampf as a civil rights manifesto. Principal Sweeney, who was the elder Vinyard's literature teacher in the not-too-distant past perceives Derek's spectre in Danny's shaved head, dark tattooes, deplorable attitudes, and, above all, his formidable, if undisciplined, intelligence.

Sweeney takes it upon himself to educate Danny, and, to commence their new one-one-one tutorial which he titles "American History X," he assigns the young man to write an expository piece about Derek's own career as a militant white supremacist and convicted killer. Sweeney hopes, of course, to awaken Danny to the folly and the cruelty of the views and behaviors he has, by all estimations, inherited through the rosy-lensed idolatry that a kid maintains for his celebrated, charismatic brother.

The linchpin to American History X's success is that Norton makes Derek not merely charismatic, but frightfully and prodigiously so—not to mention articulate, well-schooled, and physically striking. Flashing back from the color sequences of Derek's release and Danny's appointment with the principal, Kaye, a veteran of commercials working as his own cinematographer, returns in silky black and white to the events that landed Derek in prison. Seen in hindsight as a skin-headed, muscle-bound pit bull with a giant swastika tattooed over his heart, Derek is the self-appointed general of a spontaneous turf war on the Venice Beach basketball courts, in which he and his white cohorts play a pumped-up group of black residents.

The stakes of the game are that whichever side loses will be forever banned, along with their entire racial demographic, from ever again setting foot on the blacktop. The venal but almost casual racism of the sequence—the mood and dialogue are mere steps above the level of White Men Can't Jump—leads to a tensely aggressive battle that rankles the losers even more, it seems, than it refreshes those who win. After some nervy, later encounters between the members of the warring factions, the black players seek some revenge on Norton's abusive bully, and a trio of men arrive outside the Vinyards' home in the middle of the night to steal Derek's truck. Danny interrupts Derek in bed with his girlfriend to alert him of the thieves' arrival. Derek storms out of his front door and kills all three of the perpetrators.

The killing of one of the men in particular—Derek stomps on his head while the man's teeth are clamped around the concrete crub—is as horrible and piercing an image as the deaths in Schindler' List, but Kaye woefully misgauges his approach to this sequence (which is revealed in greater detail at different intervals of the picture) by filming it in fits of markedly slow motion. Not only does the approach dilute the momentary suddenness of the violence, but Kaye at times throughout the movie seems to dote on the images of frozen, rippling bodies—whether showering in prison, lifting barbells, or exacting barbaric punishments—to the extent of a sickly preoccupation with, even a fetishization of, the bullish physique of American racism. In some cases, the technique achieves the protracted visual power of a nightmare scene, and the musculature of most of the cast is an appropriate visual index of how built-up and powerful race-based mistrust and antagonism has grown on every side of the issue. Nonetheless, at other times Kaye just seems to be reaching for easy, dubious surface effects.

In any event, Derek is taken to the slammer without objection by cops who arrive on the scene with impressive quickness. Convicted of manslaughter, a more lenient finding than would have been possible if Danny had testified, Derek enters the predominantly black prison as an icon to the coven of supremacists and hate-mongers he leaves behind in Venice Beach. The feverishness with which Derek is missed while in prison and celebrated when he returns adds incredible complication to his new mission: to cut his ties with the racists; to preach his new philosophies, learned in prison, of the necessity of racial cooperation; and to pull Danny out of the vortex that once trapped Derek himself .

One of American History X's biggest problems is avoiding visual flash for its own sake, as in those slo-mo sequences, or in the lingering close-ups on either Furlong's bewildered gaze or, in the role of Derek's girlfriend, Fairuza Balk's now-tiresome rabid-cat snarl. (Truth be told, Balk is not as grating here as she can be, but where is the range and nimble facility she showed in early work like Valmont?). The other, perhaps more pressing problem, is that its screenplay too often creaks with the effort of laying out this essentially formulaic story: the reform of the villain and the salvaging of the imperiled innocent. David McKenna's script is most beset by these kinds of problems during the film's exposition scenes. Why, for example, does the entire hate-crime squad of the local police outfit need a profile of Derek's case if he is so notorious, except to provide an easy framework to introduce us to his legacy? McKenna, though, is not the only creative talent who makes poor judgments at the film's outset. Kaye strangely films Danny's office confrontation with Sweeney in a distorted fish-eye lens from Sweeney's point of view, despite the fact that the principal strikes us as a clear-sighted and forward-thinking man who alone may be able to rescue Danny from ignorance.

Another seeming misstep, though it may in fact be a laudable deepening of the story, is the influence Bob Sweeney maintains on both Vinyard brothers at their various stages on the slide into and out of racist frenzy. Perhaps because Brooks is a capable performer but not a commanding one, we never adequately understand why this figure—much like another key black character who develops a relationship with Derek in the slammer—is exempt from the invective Derek and Danny dish out so freely to everyone else, including their own family, whom, the film goes to some pains to show, they both love so dearly.

The answer to this question, at least, seems related to the brave way in which Norton and McKenna have conspired to portray Derek in particular not as a brutal, mushheaded monster, but as a smart, realistically drawn individual of credible human dimensions and complications. The monologues in which the early Derek vents his hatred are hallmarked by their shrewd incorporation of statistics, their rhetorical eloquence, and their strict, clean organization. Norton makes this guy one bright, magnetic S.O.B., which not only means he is harder to ignore and more insidious than a Time to Kill-style thug, but that he in turn appreciates intelligence and savvy in those around him. Sweeney and Lamont, the prison co-worker who befriends Derek, apparently win Derek's respect because they are his equals in both intellect and passion, qualities which Derek usually assumes racial minorities to be without.

Throughout American History X, we see figures ranging from Derek and Sweeney to a racist guru named Cameron (Stacy Keach) that all seem to find leadership among their companions through the unmimickable factor of personal charisma. Even a ringleader of the white-supremacist gang in prison, despite unseemly interactions with Latino inmates and no discernible evidence of his ideas or disposition, maintains his authority role among his cohorts by maintaining the spectacle of his own superiority: precise body language, the right tattoos, a healthy swagger. All of these "leaders" recall figures like Adolf Hitler (himself not absent from the movie) whose forceful personae were easily their greatest asset in attaining and retaining frightful peaks of power. Because Furlong plays Danny as a wide-eyed, unreflective audience for whatever worldy preacher comes along, the film is never so schematic as it might be. However progress Sweeney or Derek seems to make in reforming Danny's attitudes, his changes of heart seem capricious and shallow enough that he still may prove vulnerable to the next potent hate-message he receives from his disintegrated surroundings or coterie of fellow Lost Boys.

In addition to these well-planned narrative strokes, the visual vocabulary of American History X is also increasingly strong as the picture continues. A tense moment in which Derek lifts weights on the prison lot, cross-cut with the approach of several angry-looking black inmates, generates tension by giving no firm idea of how close they are to Derek or if, in fact, their blazing gazes are even aimed at him. He passes them all in a group shot that briefly, suddenly pulls them all into the same agitated space, and even though nothing comes of that particular run-in, the atmosphere of panic in which Derek inhabits the prison—not to mention the outside world upon his release—is indelibly imprinted.

Also commanding are the succinct, unbelabored scene in which the reformed Derek shamefully regards his swastika tattoo—an ersatz Scarlet Letter he will never erase, and which marks his whole family as dangerously as himself—and the ongoing division of black-and-white and color footage. This structural decision, it seems, was made not only to clarify the time settings of various scenes (which is already easily legible through hairstyles, dialogue, and even Norton's physical carriage) but to characterize Derek's racist past as the recurring, color-drained nightmare it now represents to him, and to register the "black-and-white" in which Derek as a scalding-hot racist often viewed his own world. The introduction of color to his later sequences is synonymous with his own embrace of the world's diversity and full-blooded potential for community, though he may have made this realization too late.

American History X badly needs some year-end award attention for Norton's work to save it from the shelf of overlooked films to which its media controversy and custody dispute have relegated it. Like Ralph Fiennes as Schindler's Amon Goeth, Norton alchemizes damnable cruelty with enough inner life, vulnerability, and leonine grace that he fascinates even at the moments where our revulsion toward him is greatest. We always perceive a glimmer of what Derek was, or could have been, before his humanity collapsed, so we believe more than we otherwise might in the conversion he undergoes in prison. I wouldn't call his performance the best of the year—still partial as I am to John Hurt in Love and Death on Long Island and Homayoun Ershadi in Taste of Cherry)—but these performances are all leagues apart from one another and must surely deserve place on any appropriately wide-ranging list of five nominees.

Understandably, the rest of the cast cannot quite match the vitality of the star, and there are other niggling problems—a rushed and contrived announcement of plot events at the picture's end, underdeveloped roles for Beverly D'Angelo and Jennifer Lien as Derek's mother and sister, the tiresome appropriation of prison rape as a plot device, and a couple of shots swiped from John Singleton—for which one virtuoso actor cannot compensate. Still, while Norton's role in the editing and directing of the picture will probably never be decided, his acting chops continue to place him as one of his age group's most promising performers and is reason enough to see American History X.

To his credit, however, director Kaye provides several other reasons, not the least of which is making us care about the whole public and private scenario he presents; any doubt of that achievement may be allayed by watching James Gray's Little Odessa (1995), another debut director's contribution to the Older Brother With Sick Mother Saves Edward Furlong subgenre, but one that choked on its own anomie. If American History X occasionally stumbles and sometimes clanks, surely it also rings powerfully and truly from a vantage of wisdom and reason where we all need to stand in contemplating these problems. Who cares who made this movie? The issue deserving attention is who, in the final outcome, will see it. B

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actor: Edward Norton

Other Awards:
Satellite Awards: Best Actor, Drama (Norton)

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