"Has anything you've done made your life better?"
'American History X' is not only famous because of Edward Norton's stunning performance as Derek Vinyard, the former neo-Nazi who sets his life straight but also because of the post-production problems that almost stopped the release of the film. Tony Kaye, the director, wasn't pleased with what the production company wanted and refused to make changes to his own cut. Edward Norton and the studio did what they could to save the project. The result is, after all glitches, one of the best films ever made.
The story is about two intelligent brothers who have, due to past events and the strict prejudice of their late father, become part of a local neo-Nazi gang at Venize Beach, California. One night, two black thugs try to break into Derek's car. The result is that Derek kills both of' 'em. The other one he kills in a very brutal way.
"Now, say good night."
Derek stomps the victim's head on the curb. Derek's younger brother, Danny (Edward Furlong) sees all of this. In disbelief of what has happened, Danny falls down on his knees and sees the cops take Derek away. Derek is sentenced to jail and years later when he is released, the old Derek is no longer. A repentant Derek comes home, only to see that his younger brother is becoming like what he used to be.
'American History X' is told in a nonlinear way. There are three different segments in the story. The time before Derek goes to jail, the time when he is in jail and the one when Derek comes home. The past is told in a black and white way, almost making it look documentary. All of these segments hits hard and contains several tragic events. This movie will not leave you alone, it will stay in your head after the first (and several later on) viewing.
Edward Norton's performance is nothing but perfection. During the movie, he develops three different versions of Derek Vinyard. The first one is full of uncontrolled rage and prejudice, the second one silent and remorseful and the last one determined and willing to give a better life to his family. This last "version" of Derek is also full of sadness. There's one scene in particular, the one where he comes out of the shower. There's no need for words there. Every word is said thru his eyes and facial gestures. The scene is simply put perfect.
Even though 'American History X' lives and dies with Norton's iconic performance (I have a poster of this movie put in frames), the supporting cast comes up with outstanding performances as well. Edward Furlong, better known as John Connor from 'Terminator 2 - Judgment Day', gives a career best performance as the younger brother. It's sad that his personal life has been full of substance problems. Beverly D'Angelo plays the mother of the two. She gives out an performance that shows how clearly she has almost given up on the two. Another strong performance is Avery Brooks' character Bob Sweeney, the principal who does not give up on Derek. He becomes the only person that Derek can lean on while in prison. It is because of him, that Derek can be freed from his past and be given a brighter look on the future.
David McKenna's script comes up with important questions about racism, prejudice, hatred and the qonsequences of the acts one does. But one of the most important elements of the story is the one about relationships within the family. Can one be forgiven about the sins of his past and be given a clean slate?
'American History X' makes you wonder. I remember when I saw this film for the first time back in '99. I immediately saw it again the following day. I was mesmerized by the whole movie. Racism is a difficult subject to come up with good movies. There are few other similar movies that come in mind, 'Romper Stomper' and 'The Believer'. 'American History X' doesn't lecture about its topics, it gives more freedom for the viewer to come up with his/hers own reasoning. This film deserves a place at any persons movie collection and I'm sure that you will also be as stunned as I after watching 'American History X'.