It’s impossible to watch the credits for American History X without thinking that they almost read: “A film by Humpty Dumpty”.
That’s the pseudonym director Tony Kaye wanted to use after he says he was “raped” by New Line Cinema, but the Director’s Guild of America refused to comply.
The raging debate over the final cut (which ended up being supervised by the film’s star, Edward Norton, whom Kaye considers a “narcissistic dilettante”) has escalated to the point where it has overshadowed the film’s controversial subject matter: a thriving community of neo-Nazi skinheads living in Venice, California.
Despite what may be left on the editing room floor, American History X is a compelling, if somewhat choppy, tragic drama that features an unflinching look at white supremacy.
Somehow, the film manages to work as both a social treatise and entertainment. It begins fitfully with a homework assignment. After budding skinhead Danny Vinyard (Edward Furlong) facetiously turns in a paper called “My Mein Kampf”, extolling the virtues of Hitler as a civil-rights hero, his black high school principal (Avery Brooks) demands a more challenging assignment.
He makes Danny write about his older brother Derek (Norton), a former white-power zealot who has just been released from prison after serving three years for a double murder. (He killed a couple of gangbangers who tried to jack his truck.)
Now reformed, Derek wants to leave his old life behind and save his family from the clutches of Cameron (Stacy Keach), the smiling den father of these hateful hoods.
But it’s easier said than done; when Derek looks at himself in the mirror, he can’t ignore the large black swastika tattoo on his chest. One of the movie’s chief assets is a magnetic lead performance by Edward Norton. He has been loudly heralded in the past for his showy work in Primal Fear and The People vs. Larry Flynt, but I think the actor has really proven himself this year.
In Rounders he was a perfectly wiry, likable Ratzo Rizzo-style heel who easily seduced golden boy Matt Damon into his grifting schemes. Here, he does a remarkable turnabout as an intensely charismatic, beefed-up skinhead who lives by his own twisted, hatefully bigoted rhetoric.
In David McKenna’s script, Derek isn’t a stupid hick; in fact, he’s frighteningly rational and intelligent, calling the KKK a “low rent band of disorganized rednecks”. But only in prison – where he befriends a black man (comedian Guy Torry) for the first time – does he start challenging his identity. The supporting performances are equally strong (except perhaps for Fairuza Balk as the leering demon girlfriend).
Especially good are Furlong as Derek’s confused brother and Beverly D’Angelo in an underwritten role as their powerless but caring mother. Director Kaye is clearly talented. His background in commercials is evident in the film’s startling visual sheen, particularly in the black and white flashback sequences. After Derek’s band of neo-Nazi kids prepare for an ambush by putting stockings on their heads, we see their distorted faces – it’s a brilliantly grotesque transformation.
The film’s message is nothing new: Children aren’t born evil; they learn to hate as products of their environment. But even if you know the drill, American History X is a crash course on how to make a message movie that resonates with crackling power.