American History X

I’ll begin by praising Edward Norton, the only reason to see American History X. Norton had been magnetic in his previous film, the lame Rounders; here he’s even better in a far worse movie. Norton effortlessly slips into the tattooed skin of Derek Vinyard, a Venice Beach kid whose fireman dad was killed in a crack-house blaze. Derek pours his grief and rage into the cracked container of white supremacy; it’s only a matter of time before he cracks, too. A brave and direct actor, Norton sells Derek’s racist rants with scary conviction. His intonations and rhythms suggest a bright young man who’s finally found a philosophy that makes sense to him. He makes you feel what it might be like to be a confused kid clinging to hatred.

For all his intelligence and skill, Norton can’t save the movie he’s stuck in, but to be fair, I doubt anyone could. American History X is trite rubbish — an ABC Afterschool Special pumped up with flashy, pretentious style and “gritty” realism. Derek, who’s just gotten out of jail (for killing two black kids trying to steal his truck), has reformed and cast off his skinhead ways. Problem: his kid brother Danny (Edward Furlong), who idolizes Derek, has fallen in with skinheads himself. Derek must redeem himself by rescuing Danny from his own former madness.

The script, by David McKenna, is maddeningly sketchy. We’re told that all the skinheads revere Derek, that he and a white supremacist (Stacy Keach) started the movement in Venice Beach. But though the movie has many flashbacks, we never see how Derek built himself up as a skinhead leader, or how he joined up with Keach. We don’t really believe in Derek’s rage over his father’s death, because the one flashback featuring the two reveals little warmth between them. We don’t believe Derek’s mother (Beverly D’Angelo) could be such a dishrag that she’d let Danny keep Nazi decorations in his room even after Derek has gone to prison. (The women in this film are enablers, racist temptresses, or powerless whiners.)

Most of all, despite the best efforts of Norton and Furlong (who’s good), we don’t believe their reformation. Danny isn’t a character; he’s a blank kid who’ll do whatever Derek does. The key event for Derek, in prison, is when another skinhead rapes him — it’s as if the movie is saying, “See, kids, this is what could happen if you hang swastikas in your room.” When Danny hears the story, he seems changed, too. Forget brotherhood: the fear of anal rape is the real answer to social ills.

For a while, American History X flirts with Clockwork Orange territory. Derek visits his racist mentor and decks him, which seems suicidal, considering the dozens of skinheads partying in the next room. Isn’t he afraid of reprisals against his family? Amazingly, McKenna drops this thread completely, but he wants an empty nihilistic ending, so we get a tragedy utterly out of left field. Characters like Derek’s rabid girlfriend (an underused Fairuza Balk) fade in and out of the movie. Presiding over it all is Avery Brooks, of the great stentorian voice, as a wise double-Ph.D. teacher; this character, like the black convict (Guy Torry) who befriends Derek in jail, seems to exist only to deflect possible charges that the movie itself is racist.

Director Tony Kaye, who made much noise about the film’s being taken away from him and recut, doesn’t seem interested in the inner workings of racists. His forte is grainy, banal images familiar from TV ads (which is Kaye’s background). The only time he wakes us up is in the violent scenes, but any idiot can make us wince at the ugliness of beatings and shootings (the curbstomping scene has become legendary). With dialogue scenes, Kaye is hopeless — he takes the camera so close in that you could lose your hand inside the pores in Edward Norton’s left nostril. The thin skin of Kaye’s style can’t cover the story’s bare bones. American History X wants to be a fire-breathing melodrama, but it just blows stale air into your face. Edward Norton cuts through some of it. But a powerful young actor can only do so much.

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