The mischievous shenanigans of director Tony Kaye have created a considerable show-biz fuss over “American History X,” his debut film that depicts neo-Nazi racism infecting one man’s family. As often happens in Hollywood, however, the fuss turns out to be more original than the movie.
Kaye, whose name remains on the film as both director and cinematographer despite his efforts to remove it, has run a well-publicized conceptual art campaign designed to protest what he considers the damage New Line Cinema has done to his film. He even showed up for a meeting with executives accompanied by a rabbi, a priest and a Tibetan monk to add some “spirituality” to the proceedings.
Though on the silly side, all this is more intriguing than the film itself, which, though well-intentioned, turns out to be a simplistic and unconvincing look at a serious problem. There’s a kernel of a good idea here, plus a forceful, mesmerizing performance by the always impressive Edward Norton, but, all those protests notwithstanding, it’s hard to see that this film could have been noticeably different no matter who had final cut.
That kernel, screenwriter David McKenna has said, is the notion of presenting a racist who is articulate and intelligent. As played by a bulked-up Norton, Derek Vineyard is that young man, a former high school honors English student whose head was turned by a combination of personal tragedy and the oily words of neo-Nazi guru Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach).
His almost glistening body covered with inflammatory tattoos, most noticeably a huge swastika on his chest, Derek cuts a compelling figure courtesy of Norton’s bravura performance. He’s got the devil’s own convincing tongue, using propaganda, statistics and half-truths to convince “insecure, frustrated, impressionable kids” that racism is the way.
“American History X” opens in black and white at a turning point in Derek’s life. We see him, in brutal and graphic detail, murdering two black teenagers who are trying to steal his truck, an act that leads to three years in prison.
The present, filmed in color, has younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) getting into trouble in high school on the same day Derek is getting out of prison. Danny is also a budding neo-Nazi who so idolizes his brother he’s written a book report celebrating “Mein Kampf.” The school’s black principal (Avery Brooks) decides to teach Danny in a one-person tutorial (which he calls American History X) and assigns him a paper about his brother’s influence on the family.
Much to that family’s surprise, however, the newly freed Derek turns out to be a changed person. He’s let his hair grow back to normal length, encourages long-suffering mother Doris (Beverly D’Angelo) to watch her health, and astonishes Danny by urging him to give up smoking and the skinhead ideology that once motivated them both.
“American History X” goes back and forth between the past and the present, between color and black and white, with Danny’s and Derek’s voice-overs guiding us through the central events of their family’s life.
Given that we’re supposed to think Derek’s change of heart is great news, it’s unfortunate that, despite Norton’s best efforts, he was a considerably more magnetic and involving individual as a Nazi, which in turn takes some of the interest out of his character once converted.
Troubling in the same vein is the way director-cinematographer Kaye was jazzed by the opportunity to place on screen a wide range of disturbing events, including a nightmarish attack on a local Korean grocery, graphic sexual violence and waves of venomous and inflammatory hate speech. We’re told this is all bad, of course, but Kaye’s facility for razzle-dazzle cinematography (he’s one of the world’s top commercial makers) merely underlines the excitement he feels at capturing it on film.
A bigger, finally insurmountable problem is the bombastic, clumsy nature of much of “American History X’s” script, which seems to feel that because racists aren’t subtle a film about them needn’t be either. Many of the supporting characters are either embarrassingly conceived or clumsily acted, and the explanations for radical changes in behavior tend to be relentlessly one-dimensional.
For all its surface verisimilitude and for all its focus on a problem that couldn’t be more current, this film can’t manage to feel more than sporadically real.
* MPAA rating: R for graphic brutal violence including rape, pervasive language, strong sexuality and nudity. Times guidelines: a graphic homosexual rape and the explicitly shown death of a young man who gets his head stomped in.
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‘American History X’
Edward Norton: Derek
Edward Furlong: Danny
Fairuza Balk: Stacey
Stacy Keach: Cameron
Elliott Gould: Murray
A Turman-Morrissey Co. production, released by New Line Cinema. Director Tony Kaye. Producer John Morrissey. Executive producers Lawrence Turman, Steve Tisch. Screenplay by David McKenna. Cinematographer Tony Kaye. Editors Jerry Greenberg, Alan Heim. Costumes Doug Hall. Music Anne Dudley. Production design Jon Gary Steele. Art directors Dan Olexiewicz, James Kyler Black. Set decorator Tessa Posnansky. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.
* Playing in selected theaters.