Plot: A former neo-nazi skinhead tries to prevent his younger brother from going down the same wrong path that he did.
Director: Tony Kaye
Writer: David McKenna
Stars: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong and Beverly D'Angelo
Heading Towards Redemption
I have to say, from some time now I despised Edward Norton. After I saw his, what can I call it....work in "The Incredible Hulk", "Italian Job" and "Pride and Glory" where he was so bad he actualy made Colin Farrell look amazing and Farrell is nowhere near 'old' Norton (I mean from „Fight Club” times) league, it was impossible for me to recall why this man is a good actor. I mean sure, he was good in "Fight Club", but the character of the Narrator and the writing in this film is so incredible, it would actually take a real talent to screw this up. Then I saw "Painted Veil" and he was very good, but still the vivid image of his performance in "Pride and Glory" wasn't gone. But tonight I finally saw "American History X" for which Norton was nominated for Oscar and whilst the movie is from 1998 and what Norton does now is far from perfection I certainly cannot call his performance in "P&G" proof he isn't that good anymore. It was simply a bad judgment on his part, because clearly he is a great actor.
The movie is definitely not easy nor pleasant to watch - but it is gripping from the first moment. The story of former skinhead who is redeemed after spending 3 years in prison reminded me of "A Clockwork Orange" in terms this is also, from what I gathered, a cult movie for many and in both cases it shows incredibly troubled individual with certain ideology and his transformation. But as much as I appreciate “A Clockwork Orange" and there is no doubt that it is a good film, I was never a fan. It said a lot of things but I think statements shown in "American History X" are far more powerful, perhaps because they are so skillfully presented on screen.
The story is very believable and both sides of the conflict rise a lot of arguments. The movie is not trying to show the viewer the story in a simple way - Norton's character is not some dumb follower who is simply racist and who plans to attack everyone in his reach. He has whole ideology to back up his actions – yes, a horrible ideology but the one he got to believe in after questioning a lot of things, being encouraged to by his own father who clearly was racist himself and after being manipulated after huge personal loss, but still believing in what he does to be a good thing - I'm not in any way trying to defend the character and certainly not his actions - the movie does it just by presenting the whole story which makes it really difficult to watch.
His character is also very literate and smart and in spite of being filled with hatred he does want to take care of his family. The character of Derek Vinyard is constructed beautifully and is hard to judge, but that construction is far from perfect way - there are few moments in the movie that I thought the violence he inflicted on others wasn't justified even in the eyes of character, even with such an ideology filled with hatred. The 'curb eating' scene for one - I understand Derek's urge to shoot the people who were breaking in to his car but to go to such cruelty...Yes, it is hinted earlier in the movie, during family dinner scene that he is capable of unnecessary cruelty, but I thought that particular scene was only done for shock value.
The scenes in prison are well done, especially the fragile bond that formed between Derek and his fellow black cellmate with whom he works. Those scenes portray some things stated earlier on in the movie and everything fits well. I thought Derek's need for redemption was believable but only thanks to Norton's amazing acting - the script was lacking a lot at that point in the movie, but Norton made that work.
The rest of the cast is barely noticeable, they are simply hiding in the shadow of Norton's work but Avery Brooks who plays the teacher who tries to help Vinyard boys was very good. Edward Furlong, who plays Derek's younger brother Danny, the boy who is going up the same, fatal path was very bland. He was clearly making an effort, but he didn't make any impression on me. It wouldn't make any difference if somebody else played that part and that doesn't say anything good about his performance.
The movie has many strong scenes but apart from 'curb' scene they are necessary for the development of the story. After all, what can be expected from the movie about crushing anger and violence. But the scenes that impressed me the most where simple discussion scenes, like the one between Derek and the man who is dating his mother or the one between Derek and his father. For me, the dialogue always makes the characters and ultimately – makes the film. In those two scenes the lines were so good and were delivered with such force and belief that it has compensated for what the movie was lacking in script or cinematography.
This is certainly an incredibly powerful work, however I think the movie is a bit overrated. It was very good, yes, but not good enough to get so much praise and gain such fame. Norton's performance on the other hand - that is something every movie fan should see. I for one, will never doubt him again.