American History X (1998)

Directed by Tony Kaye
Written by Darren McKenna
Starring Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Avery Brooks, Beverly D'Angelo, Stacy Keach

My Advice: Matinee.

Derek Vinyard (Norton) was the perfect skinhead.  Not only did he swallow the rhetoric hook, line and sinker, but he encouraged other impressionable and troubled youths to follow him and his mentor, Cameron (Keach), down the path of Neo-Nazism.  And this path leads Derek to brutally murdering two black gang members and a three year stint in prison.  Having had a change of heart in the joint, thanks to the intervention of his former principal (Brooks) and a co-worker in the prison laundry (Guy Torry), he comes out at the end of his sentence wanting to rescue his family and specifically his little brother (Furlong) from the ideals that have so far made his life unlivable.

This movie is made up of some really compelling material, despite a sometimes uneven script by McKenna and odd cinematography by Kaye (who did double duty on this one).  The black and white sequences showing us the past are quite effective, but one often wonders why the camera is in so very close on characters that we are granted unimpeded views looking up Avery Brooks' nostrils.  Yikes.  That and certain portions of Anne Dudley's score are just a bit on the bombastic side.  I understand that they're trying to make a white vs. black game of basketball  have the heroic and epic implications of the running-on-the-beach-scene in Chariots of Fire, but it's distracting, frankly.  What brings it above the problems with its source material is fine acting all the way around.  Norton is in Oscar-worthy mode as Derek, and no matter where you view him along his path from damnation to salvation, he is dead-on in his characterization.  Furlong's little brother part is good, pretty much nothing we haven't seen him do before, though.  Avery Brooks' principal and skinheadologist is great with that Darkseid voice of his.  D'Angelo plays the hapless mother role well and Stacy Keach is surprisingly and eeriely good in his role as the Big Kahuna of the Neo-Nazis.  You want to see more of this role and it makes me wonder if this isn't part of the editing squabble that got Kaye fired.  What's great, though, is Guy Torry in his role as Lamont, the black man who befriends Derek in the prison laundry and finally gets him to smile much less talk.  His monologue about missing women and sex while behind bars is priceless.

What is the sum of all these parts?  An interesting and disturbing look at all sides of the issue of bigots, racists and skinheads (not necessarily synonyms, mind you). It's a film with no easy answers, the likes of which I haven't seen since Tim Robbins' treatment of capital punishment in Dead Man Walking.  It's a definite not only because of Norton doing his thing, because it's a subject that unfortunately still needs debate.  Matinee will do fine, but it's good on the big screen.

Buy it on DVD from Amazon!
Buy the soundtrack from Amazon!

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