In previous reviews, I have praised films for their ambition but criticized them for not being able to accomplish that same level of ambition (Interstellar, There Will Be Blood). American History X suffers from that same exact disease of ambition. In this case, it isn’t so bad. American History X is a good film and sometimes can even feel like a great one. It aims to be an insightful character study and an epic commentary on how horrible racism can be. It bumps into those things but never decides to take a deeper look.
American History X tells the story of two brothers, Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) and Danny Vinyard (Edward Furlong), who share, at different times in their life, a white supremacist mindset. After their father is murdered by an African American drug dealer, Derek decides to join a white supremacist neo-Nazi movement in Venice Beach, Los Angeles and quickly rises to prominence amongst Californian racist circles. He commits horrible acts with his neo-Nazi gang, such as raiding a convenience store run by a Korean man. One night, Derek murders two African American men who were attempting to steal his car. This sends Derek to jail for three years and during that time he gradually starts to change his perspective towards racism. Danny also becomes a part of the neo-Nazi movement, following in Derek’s footsteps. Danny writes a paper about Mein Kampf in history class at school and gets into trouble, leading Derek’s former history teacher to ask Danny to write another paper about Derek instead. The film is presented in a nonlinear fashion as Derek and Danny’s stories intertwine with each other.
From the opening scene of American History X, it is fairly obvious that the film is about racism and that our lead character, Derek, is the embodiment of racism. The film is extremely powerful and provocative in its representation of racial tensions and always manages to stay compelling. However, at moments the film can get melodramatic and it really distracts from the brutal realism of the film, especially the ending. I do enjoy the ending for what it was trying to accomplish but the way it was filmed and presented made it feel extremely cheesy and forced. The screenplay also fails to offer a believable reason why Derek became a neo-Nazi and how he eventually changed into a better person when he was in jail. All we get to see is a brief glimpse of Derek’s father talking to him about how African Americans are poisoning America’s system. Is that really enough to completely change someone’s mindset? I don’t think so. In jail, Derek was forced to work on the laundry with a fellow African American prisoner. Derek initially ignores him but quickly starts to treat him like a human being. The transition is too quick and the film feels like it is rushing to touch all of its points. Supposedly, director Tony Kaye was unhappy with the final cut and tried to take his name off the film. I don’t know what his cut of the film would have been like, but I would be fine with a longer runtime just to fill in the missing blanks of the story.
On a technical level, American History X is well made. Tony Kaye, who also served as cinematographer, effectively uses black and white and slow motion to make Venice Beach look an apocalyptic battle ground between races. But while watching the film, I always wished that it had become something more. Maybe with a director like Spike Lee or Martin Scorsese, the film could have spent more time developing its characters and ideas while still offering a visual treat.
The main shining star of American History X is Edward Norton and his career defining performance as Derek Vinyard. Norton’s performance is quite simply one of the best performances I have ever seen in my whole life. I know superlatives aren’t good to use in a review but I can’t emphasize my point enough in any other way. Norton is chillingly charismatic and intelligent despite his motivation being completely disgusting. Even though he sounds confident when speaking, Norton also adds a sense of misplaced passion in his performance, making him all the more unsettling. Norton is able to portray Derek’s racism in a completely realistic and sickly dark manner, and just completely becomes his character. I never saw Edward Norton on screen. During a scene where Derek kills two African American men for trying to stealing his car, you get to see the true viciousness of Derek. Norton is terrifying in the scene, especially when he smiles after killing the two men. Norton tries his best to make Derek’s transformation in prison believable but the poor writing still drags him down. However, once Derek leaves prison as a changed man, Norton’s performance shines again, showing us an alternative and caring side of Derek. Norton sells it with the right amount of poignancy and honesty. It’s fascinating how Norton was capable of portraying different angles of his character without going out of character. Norton was also heartbreaking during the tragic (and melodramatic) ending, flawlessly bringing Derek’s character arch to a conclusion.
American History X features a brilliant performance from Edward Norton and some nice stylistic choices. The film tries to say a lot about racism and hatred, and can sometimes portray these ideas powerfully in individual scenes, although the writing does limit what the film is capable of accomplishing. If the film’s representation of racism wasn’t so simplistic and Derek’s transformation was more developed, the film would have been much better. I am giving American History X a B+.
Please comment in the comment section below. Thanks for reading!