American History X

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IMDb Top 50 – #36

Directed: Tony Kaye

Written by: David McKenna

Starring: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong and Beverly D’Angelo

Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) former leader of a neo-nazi skinhead gang returns from prison and tries to prevent his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) following his path of hate.

When I was about 11 my brother started working for a VHS/DVD warehouse. A perk of the job was that he was gifted some of the used ‘preview videos’ that were sent to Video Stores for whatever reason. So I just happened to mis-spend my youth absorbing a steady diet of every new release from the catalogue of distributors such as - RoadshowNew LineWarner Bros, Dimension, Miramax etc. And it may have been (who am I kidding definitely was) negligent parenting but I was never censored from really ANY film. The sodomy and point blank shooting to the brain of Pulp Fiction was fine, I was 9 – until American History X arrived in the house. I remember to this day my Dad saying “You are NOT allowed to watch this.” So I waited until my Dad went out that day and proceeded to watch it. For a kid aged about 14-15, let me tell you, it had a profound affect.

Now, years later, revisiting this powerhouse hasn’t dampened that affect. However: the behind the scenes volatility and controversy are pretty famous in Hollywood folklore. I’m aware of it but for the sake of keeping this review fairly concise I’ll briefly mention it. Allegedly, director Tony Kaye almost had his name removed from the film because of the level that Norton co-opted the direction of the film to shift the focus to Derek, instead of Danny. If you want to read further on the topic there’s an informative piece in EW here.

Regardless of the fact, the product (no matter who directed it) displays some wonderful aesthetic choices. uses great sublime oceanic imagery, evoking the cyclical tidal flow of humanity’s self destructive impulse. The uses of black and white for the flashbacks show the depths of that binary existence that enters the stark present, with muted almost camouflage and khaki aesthetic that makes you feel like you’re in a war zone. Kaye’s use of slow motion in the defining moments of Derek and Danny’s story etch into your consciousness. Finally, the choice to enunciate horrific violence (if you’ve seen it you know what I’m referring to) in a confronting and realistic way – leaves a lasting, dental pain inducing impression.

Courtesy of Pictures Depot

In this revisitation, Avery Brooks’ Dr Sweeney and Elliot Gould’s Murray really stood out. Brooks’ Sweeney has a dark and hateful past of his own and has channelled it to supporting Danny (Furlong) and Derek (Norton). Brook’s performance reeks of a personal past pain. Gould’s lined face and implied knowledge hit me so much harder in his encounters with Derek in this viewing. This intelligent teacher has to suffer this young man’s fierce and unerring prejudice. There’s something so affective in how he swallows the racial epithets – it’s with the most profound sadness that he’s coming to the realisation that America harbours and cultivates this kind of prejudice. And I must quickly mention the stellar effort of Beverly D’Angelo, playing the powerless Doris Vinyard who induced uncontrollable tears with line “I’m ashamed that YOU….came out of my body!” Powerful.

Edward Furlong’s performance as Danny shows an impressive range for a young actor but should be commended for being able to complement the unbelievable performance of Norton. Furlong’s Danny was able to convey idolatry for Derek, portray the weight of the unyielding scars of his recent history, reveal a fiery capacity for hate and demonstrate a focused intelligence. Furlong’s a believable and authentic teen and despite the bravado, the hate speak etc you still feel that this is a young man that can make it back from the brink of a terrible future.

Norton’s performance surpasses Primal Fear as the best acting that he’s committed to celluloid. Derek allows the audience to empathise with a character that at his worst is an abhorrent hateful human being. It’s a performance that isn’t just a ‘pure-evil’ bad character -he joins the dots between misguided and wounded youth and manipulative ‘hate-enablers’ to the path of dehumanisation and eventual anti humanity of imprisonment. He’s an intelligent, fragile and impressionable youth, further down a path that he can’t understand. But when he’s pushed into the microcosmic prison environment the ridiculous, insular and backward behaviours in the outside world are presented front and centre when the singular experience of all the prisoners enforces a community. The hypocrisy of his movement and the reality of his powerless state are revelatory and watching Norton strip away the hateful veneer to Derek’s repentant heart is amazing on every viewing.

American History X advocates that “those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it“? It’s a powerful social document and should be part of your film watching curriculum. 

Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman