Originally Published – 10/17/2011
Oh Tony Kaye. Why are you so brilliant yet so strangely weird? Critics, audiences and even green men from Jupiter all agree that American History X is pretty damn amazing. A shocking yet brutally honest character study of white supremacists and the lives they impact, American History X plays out more like an even handed documentary than a fictional tale. Full of wonderful performances, fine storytelling and Kaye’s signature cinematography, the film is a technical and emotional marvel. So why did Kaye have a public feud with New Line over the final cut of the movie, a cut done without his supervision? How come Kaye took out full page ads in film trade papers condemning the film? Why did he request his name be replaced with Alan Smithee in the director credit? The reasons run deep and long yet the end result is the same: American History X is an unflinching look into people consumed by hate and the people their anger touches the most.
Telling the story of a Venice Beach family whose life is ripped at the seams by hate and bigotry, X centers around Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton), a thoughtful yet angry young leader of a group of neo-Nazis. After being sent to Chino for the murder of an African American gang member trying to jack his car, Derek spends three years amongst the very people he grew to despise and learns some hard lessons in the process. Luckily the film isn’t all about jail time and sieg heils as much attention is paid to the affect Derek’s life of hatred has on his family, mostly through his impressionable young brother, Danny (Edward Furlong). Danny is following in his brother’s skinhead footsteps and, after a stunt at school sends him to brink of expulsion, is tasked with telling the story of his brother, his history of hate and the affect all of this has had on his young psyche. This inclusion of the family element is one of the film’s greatest successes, creating both the motivation for Derek’s world views and the ending result.
In fact, the element that makes the movie work is how much attention is paid to the back story of Derek, giving his mean spirited character a redeemable edge. This strange dichotomy puts the audience in an uncomfortable position, forcing us to face our own opinions of race relations head on. The film never apologizes for the actions of Derek, rather focusing on the events that led a brilliant yet impressionable youth down a path of self destructive bigotry. Kaye examines everything with a studious yet compassionate eye, never forgiving Derek for his vile ways but never truly condemning him either. To Kaye, Derek is a youth gone awry, led down a slippery slope by weak minded predators and we as an audience almost feel sorry for the Nazi, despite our natural distaste for the message he’s spewing.
All this would be for naught, however, without the brilliant work of the film’s main cast. Edward Norton dives head first into the tricky role of Derek, giving the character plenty of emotional gravitas for us to latch onto. Much like many of his type, his racism is borne from the pain of loss, namely the sudden slaying of his father, told wonderfully via a profanity laced TV interview filmed shortly after his death. Norton plays the role smartly, honestly and emotionally bare, giving one of the best performances of his career. The rest of the cast is wonderfully written and realized, with top marks going to Furlong in the role of Danny and Avery Brooks in the role of Dr. Sweeny, an African American principal who sees a glimmer of good in the eyes of both brothers. And of course, one can’t talk about a Tony Kaye film without mentioning the exquisite cinematography that’s become his trademark. Filming the past in sumptuous black and white and the present day in color, Kaye masterfully tells the story in his signature style. In fact, the black and white portions are so visually gripping, it almost makes the color look weak in comparison. Sure the movie has some uneven moments and the ending is so shocking, it seems tacked on but the piece as a whole balances pain, love and even a splash of humor effortlessly.
Race is a tough issue to tackle and with my recent review of this year’s The Help, it’s a subject that seems to be coming up a lot lately. Despite them both dealing with the subject of race, the two films tell entirely different stories in completely different ways. Where The Help took at a look at those beaten down by a broken system, American History X examines those doing the oppressing in an honest yet brutal fashion. More fable than film, American History X is a thought provoking and powerful piece of filmmaking that cements Edward Norton as one of our finest modern day actors and Tony Kaye as a director of daring and depth. The world needs more Tony Kaye movies and if only the studio hadn’t sparked a firefight with this eccentric yet genius artist, we just might have more of them.
Score – 90%