Tuesday, 13 March 2012

American History X (1998) - Review

Tony Kaye's American History X (1998) was far more than a film about the evils of Neo-Nazi skinheads, and the wrongness of views of white supremacists (which is what I mostly expected). It does contain those ideas, of course, but the film explores the concept race relations, and of hate in all its intricacies in a way I didn't expect. In the opening sequence, there is a shot of Edward Norton's character Derek Vineyard, bare-chested, with his swastika tattoo proudly on display as his character turns towards the camera in slow motion, to look at the one of the black men who tried to break into his car. His expression is one of cold, unfeeling triumph. We are not yet aware at this point of why they were breaking into his car (and the first thought I assumed was that it was some kind of retaliation for Derek's white supremacist viewpoints) but in this shot I found captured the ugliness, the vileness that is capable within human nature - our propensity to hate without valid cause, and it is something that scares me.

After this, we jump forward three years and find that Danny (Edward Furlong), Derek's younger brother who narrates much of the film from his own subjective viewpoint, is heading down much the same path as his older brother. He has been called to the principle's office for turning in an essay on Mein Kampf, extolling the virtues of Hitler's philosophy. Dr. Bob Sweeney (Avery Brooks), the principle of the school is not ready to proclaim Danny a lost cause just yet. Sweeney, holder of two Ph.Ds and who often does outreach work with troubled youths, states that Danny will now be taking lessons with him; the class will be called American History X and he must hand in a paper, due the next day, about his brother and the influence Derek had on his life. This same day, Derek is released from prison, and to the horror of his former 'brotherhood' members and his younger brother, it is obvious that Derek is a changed person. He no longer wants anything to do with his former life, and does his best to convince Danny to stay away from this brotherhood as well.

Through flashbacks (distinguished by being shown to us in black and white), and Danny and Derek's narration, we gradually learn how Derek was first drawn into this hateful world, what caused Danny to follow him, and what happened that made Derek change so much in prison. It is at times brutal, and difficult to watch, but, as with all powerful films such as this, we are compelled to watch. Edward Norton, nominated for an Oscar for his work here, is a large part of this, I think. The way he inhabits his role makes for an incredibly believable and disturbing performance at times, and a touching one at others. Edward Furlong as Danny is also worthy of high praise, capturing the anger and frustration the character requires. Avery Brooks was perfectly cast as Sweeney - his voice the calm, soothing voice of reason. He is most underrated as an actor. The cinematography is also quite beautiful (Tony Kaye was DOP as well as director. This is what happens when the DOP directs at the same time) - a stark contrast to the ugly nature on display.

As I said above, this film is not simply about skinheads - the message here is strong and clear. As Sweeney says, he used to hate too until he realised it was simply pointless. There is so much pointless hate to be observed, ranging from schoolyard bullies to street gangs to the skin heads, led by a man called Cameron Alexander (Stacey Leach). Two of the most hateful characters in this film are the white supremacists (Cameron and one of his followers, Seth (Ethan Suplee) are incredibly distasteful) but no matter who is feeling the hate, or who it's directed at, we are made to feel the pointlessness of it. It's a bleak, sad feeling.

American History X is one of those films that won't soon be forgotten, and nor should it be. Its message is loud and clear, but one that, even in today in the 21st century, needs to be reiterated more and more.

5/5.

20 comments:

  1. I wasn't expecting it to be so Brilliant !! Edward Norton and that ending. Amazing !!

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    1. It turned out to be a different kind of brilliant to what I was expecting - loved it!

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  2. So happy that you loved American History X. Definitely one of my firm favourites - the more I watch it, the more I love it.

    As always, great review!

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    1. Danke :) It's definitely in my favourites now as well!

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  3. Such an amazing film - one of my favorites. The movie is not about racism - it's about hate.

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  4. I really liked it. But I didn't really like the ending. It's not that I wanted a happy ending or anything, but I didn't understand what purpose it served.
    But yes, one cannot forget this film ever. Also I think Norton's performance is one of the scariest and cut-throat ever.
    Good review :)

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    1. Aaaw, I loved the ending! I can't talk about it here much without spoilers, but it drove home the pointlessness of all the hate.

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  5. I agree, it is a movie that is not easy to forget. The ending just killed me, it was so shocking, I think it made my experience ten times better and it helped me remember it and always put it in my top movies! Great post Ruth!

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    1. Definitely understand what you mean about making the experience better! The ending is partly why this film made such an impact!

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  6. Nice review, glad you enjoyed the film. Are you aware of all the drama that went on during shooting, and how Kaye attempted to have his name changed to "Humpty Dumpty" in the credits? He basically demanded that Norton shoot an ending that wasn't scripted, and Norton refused. Don't want to reveal that proposed ending here (because it would spoil the current one), but yeah, it was crazy stuff.

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    1. I just read about Kaye's whole 'name change' debacle and suing New Line (though I haven't read about the alternate ending bit yet) - he seems a bit...eccentric....yeah, that's a good way to put it! I can't picture what other ending he could have possibly wanted, because the ending here felt inevitable. I can't imagine doing it any other way.

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  7. Excellent Review! I liked the movie a lot and I still consider it to be the best work by Edward Norton to date.

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    1. I really need to watch more Edward Norton films - next stop Fight Club, perhaps? :)

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  8. Brilliant film, great review. I get to teach AHX every year for 'Spectatorship and Emotional Response' and I never tire of seeing it. Great OTT cinematography, slow-mo and soundtrack and Norton's best performance. Do I understand correctly that you have not seen Fight Club? Please, please, please go watch it asap! Drop everything...

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    1. It's one of my priorities for this week, I promise!

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  9. Incredible performance by Edward Norton, he was robbed at the oscars! (too controversial I suppose, but at least he got nominated)

    Edward Furlong as Danny is also worthy of high praise, as you say, what ever happened to him, a b-movie regular judging from a quick look on IMDB.

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    1. It's so often the way with promising talent...they are relegated to b-movies too often.

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  10. I really don't remember the cinematography for I saw the film a while ago but I believe it's great if you have a few words to say about it. I really liked the film. It's very memorable (even though I forgot what camerawork is like there).

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    1. The use of black and white was surprising at first, and I didn't expect it at all!

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