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November 6, 2008 |

By TK Burton | Pajiba Blockbusters | November 6, 2008 |

It is perhaps strange, in the wake of such a momentous week, to review a movie about Neo-Nazism. Yet American History X, for all of its stumbles (and there are many), is actually a phenomenal film in many ways. It’s the rare film that, despite those missteps, can still affect you on a fundamental level. It’s an insightful snapshot into more than just the surface of the white supremacist ideology and its ensuing youth movement, but instead gives a glimpse into the human elements, and the human damage, that are a part of it.

Filmed in 1998 and directed by Tony Kaye, American History X is about two brothers, Derek (Edward Norton) and Danny (Edward Furlong) Vinyard, siblings in a working class family in Venice Beach. Derek is an active member of the local Neo-Nazi movement led by the venomous, scheming Cameron (Stacy Keach). Derek is well on his way to indoctrinating his brother as well, despite the desperate protestations of his mother Doris (Beverly D’Angelo) and the stern lecturing of Danny’s high school principle Dr. Sweeney (Avery Brooks).

The story is told in several parts — the first is the plotline mentioned above, which focuses on Derek’s rise through the ranks of the Neo-Nazis and his evolution from wide-eyed youth into hardened White Supremacist. The second is a more redemptive tale that takes place after he is imprisoned for the gruesome murder of two black kids who try to steal his car. There are also other little pieces of Derek and Danny’s history interwoven throughout the picture — including scenes of them with their bigoted father (William Russ) who exerts his influence on a younger, impressionable Derek, putting him on the path that would lead him to Cameron’s door. Both narratives are woven together using Danny as a narrator, under the guise of a paper he is assigned to write for Sweeney titled “American History X.” Furlong’s narrative is actually pretty good — it does a fair job of moving the story along, and helping transition between the past and the present. Unfortunately, the final storyline and central plot device of the film is a real clunker — after Derek has an epiphany, Sweeney uses his powers of diplomacy and persuasion to get him temporarily released to try to help get Danny on the path to righteousness. It is, unfortunately, a glaringly weak mechanism that almost derails the picture altogether.

Fortunately, solid direction and spectacular acting save American History X. The direction keeps you on your toes, moving swiftly and easily between introspective scenes of Derek in his rage-and-fury days, his time in prison, and after his release. Norton is a juggernaut in American History X, with a range of emotions and attitude that clearly establishes him as one of the fiercest actors of my generation and in fact garnered him an Oscar nomination (it would instead go to Roberto Benigni for Life is Beautifulsigh). He is clearly three different people in his role, a chameleon-like performance that is consistently impressive. At the beginning of his journey, he is clearly a sharp mind, but grabbed and twisted to become the clever, feral creature that Cameron wants as the chief of his nü-fascist shock troops. Derek is full of vituperative slogans and with a swarming cloud of rage in his heart and mind. His fury over the death of his father (a firefighter killed by … you guessed it … blacks while trying to save a burning house — the first painfully obvious emotional manipulation of the film) and the efforts of Cameron create a near-perfect Aryan street warrior are perfectly encapsulated by Norton. His anger at the world around him is a palpable thing, from his hard, fixed stares to his snide grins, and he owns every second of it. Yet he just as successfully plays the role of the redeemed stranger, waking up in a world that he thought he understood, but which has pulled the rug out from underneath him. In prison, Derek learns some of the more unpleasant truths about his peers, as well as some of the surprising truths about his perceived opponents. This eye-opening is shown through his interaction with Lamont (Guy Tory), the black inmate who works with him in the prison laundry, as well as with the Aryan Brotherhood psychos that he sides with for protection and brotherhood. When the tide is turned, and his brothers turn on him while the brother protects him, Derek’s confusion and mental frailty is almost uncomfortable to watch. Finally, the end of his transformation, when he grows his hair back and is released to try to redeem himself and his brother, is yet another facet of his riveting performance. Overwhelmed with regret, he is desperate for both forgiveness and acceptance, and fearful of the fate he may have led Danny to.

The remaining cast is impressive as well — with the exception of Fairuza Balk, whose shrill, harpy-like overacting is as predictable as ever. Furlong, who I’m usually apathetic-at-best about, is actually quite good, in essence playing “Little Derek,” but playing it with grace and vigor. His naiveté and the way it’s manipulated by everyone — Derek, Cameron, their friend and fellow Nazi wannabe Seth (a surprisingly engaging Ethan Suplee — Remember the Titans, The Butterfly Effect) gives the role a tense, jagged emotionality that creates a very sympathetic character. Beverly D’Angelo is also wonderful as the helpless, hopeless mother who is watching her children become something she hates and can’t possibly understand, but is powerless to stop. Finally, a great cameo by Elliot Gould as the Jewish teacher and boyfriend that Doris brings home, to tragic results. Gould plays a somber, sympathetic man who tries to bring a sense of peace to the tumultuous family, only to be rebuffed and finally insulted and threatened by a furious Derek. As he eventually retreats from the Vinyard home, a rabid Derek barks, “You see that?!” as he pulls down his shirt to reveal a massive swastika tattoo, “it says not! welcome!” It’s a moving and beautifully executed scene, filled with what feels like real human anger, fear and frustration.

Ultimately, what makes the story so successful is that it avoids the trap of depicting the skinhead kids as nothing more than violent, brain-dead sheep. Instead, writer David McKenna and director Kaye carefully construct a realistic world where it’s not terribly difficult to see how Derek and his cohorts head down that awful path. It’s been said time and time again, and while it sounds endlessly derivative, it’s worth repeating: kids aren’t born bad. They are victims of their environment, of parenting, of the world around them. If we are to give the benefit of sympathy and understanding to the drug dealer in Boyz N The Hood and to the madness of soldiers in Full Metal Jacket, then one has to extend that same consideration to the wannabe Hitler youth of American History X. This is where the film is at its strongest — showing the brotherhood, the sense of identity and unity that being a skinhead brings them. Is it misguided? No question. Is it pathological and sick and actually dangerous? Absolutely. Is it believable and, to a certain extent, understandable? Sadly, very much so. But American History X shows us how the ignorant and the unaware can easily be manipulated into thinking that the problems in their lives are the fault of others, of foreigners and strangers, and how the only way to get what’s yours back… is to take it.

There is no scene that better demonstrates this than the basketball scene, wherein Derek and his gang of friends and thugs gather to challenge the local black gang to a playground basketball game. The stakes of the game are huge for both sides — loser leaves the area and never returns; it’s filmed with an amazing sense of camaraderie and joyous solidarity — take away the race-war undertones, and it’s a pretty effective scene from one of those “triumph of the human spirit” sports movies. For a moment, you might even lose yourself in the triumph of Derek and his boys, in the sheer, righteous, exultant, almost childlike glee of victory. Until the swirling haze of shaved heads and swastika tattoos brings the scene crashing back to reality. It’s that dichotomy of emotion that makes the film work so well.

Of course, American History X is by no means a perfect film — in fact, it’s actually deeply flawed. As I mentioned, the basic instrument used to move the plot around is essentially a rather lame, uncreative tool to get the story moving. It’s unbelievable enough to make the viewer shake their head in incredulity. In addition to that, the third act is, at times, overwrought and filled with shameless emotionality. Derek returns home on his temporary mission a completely changed man, with absolutely no hint of his prior self other than the ink in his skin. While the scenes in prison are mostly good scenes, the transformation, based mainly on a wisecracking black man and a lumbering, leering group of Neo-Nazi Neanderthals (whose worst sin appears to be their lack of dedication to the cause) is a little too pat, a little too obvious. While it clearly wants to be a tale about mans capacity for change, the redemption of Derek comes, at times, at the expense of quality storytelling and creativity, and it forms a gaping hole in the fabric of the film. At the same time, as he blazes a path through his former life, one can easily sense that the cast is hurtling helplessly towards tragedy. When coupled with the salvation theme of the film, one can’t help but feel manipulated by the ending.

Despite its flaws, American History X is still a phenomenal achievement. Norton firmly establishes his place on the list of brilliant young actors, and for two-thirds of the film, the storytelling is a crackling, poignant and at times downright frightening affair. It’s worth seeing despite all of its flaws, for its strengths outweigh its weaknesses by far. There may well be others, but I’ve seen three truly great movies that deal with youth and modern Neo-Nazism. Romper Stomper, The Believer and American History X. Each tells a completely different side of the story, and each has its merits. American History X doesn’t work on every level, but it tries to show us some of the truths about how people can easily be led towards hate and fear, and that’s worth something. Finally, it’s such an ironic coincidence considering this week’s events, that I can’t help but leave you with this: It ends with Danny quoting the very same lines from Lincoln’s inaugural address that President-Elect Obama used two days ago:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

TK can be found standing outside, gazing at America, stunned and proud. He blogs at Uncooked Meat.

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American History X / TK

Pajiba Blockbusters | November 6, 2008 |

TK Burton is the Editorial Director. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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