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American History X

Starring Edward Norton and Edward Furlong
Written by David McKenna
Directed by Tony Kaye
Website: www.historyx.com/

IN SHORT: A good performance by Edward Norton doesn't make this thing any more palatable. For film students and small film buffs only.

Welcome to Oscar season. A time of incredibly long-in-length movies (which American History X is not) and a time of films that make reviewers like me wince (which it is). It's time for movies that are about topics so unappetizing that I have to remind myself that I get paid to sit through them. Thus, on today's chopping block is Tony Kaye's American History X which offers fine performances by its stars, a clear-cut story and shocking twist ending story about skin-head racism. If it's point is to get us discussing the causes for the violent hatred among skinheads and other gangs, it misses the point.

AHX is brutal, at times violent, and always in your face tale of the murder of a middle class firefighter, by a drug dealer while putting out a fire, and his sons' descent into hate. In flashback sequences, appropriately shot in black and white, we meet Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton), who has been lured into the life by a Neo-Nazi named Cameron (Stacey Keach). The film quickly sets up a brutal murder of a pair of African-American gangbangers who have broken into Derek's car in the middle of the night -- Cranky emphasizes brutal -- and the camera lingers on the huge swastika tattooed into his chest. The hate on Norton's face is downright unsettling.

Three years later, younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong), viewing his brother's actions as almost God-like, is writing history reports about Adolph Hitler's Mein Kampf. His teacher (Elliot Gould) wants him expelled, perhaps because of an ill- fated courtship with the boy's mother (Beverly D'Angelo) or perhaps because of the confrontation with Derek that soured the relationship in the first place. We discover this as Danny is made to write a new paper, about the history and reasons for Derek's hatred, under tutelage of school principal Bob Sweeney (Avery Brooks). We also discover that the racist roots are more deeply ingrained than we'd like to think.

Brooks' character is linked to both young men in several ways. He is, perhaps, the epitome of the "teacher who cares" even in the face of racial hatred. Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that three years in the California Corrections Facility at Chino has reset Derek's mind about Nazism. His task as a grown-up ex-con is to try to save his li'l bro before it's too late.

In showing us all the pieces of the puzzle, David McKenna's script leaves one big hole. It uses flashbacks to expose the reasoning clearly and succinctly. We see the after-effects of the event that motivates Derek. We never see how Cameron seduces him to the dark side, and that bit would have greatly enhanced any possible discussion about the film.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to American History X, he would have paid . . .


Film students can have this one. Cranky would have paid good money to see the film for Edward Norton alone, because he hasn't failed to deliver a good role to date. That his performance was unsettling to me and that the entire film left a bad taste in my mouth is enough is for me. You have been warned.

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The Cranky Critic® is a Registered Trademark of, and his website is Copyright © 1995  -  2015   by Chuck Schwartz. Articles by Paul Fischer are Copyright © 1999 - 2006 Paul Fischer. All images, unless otherwise noted, are property of,©, ®, their respective studios and are used by permission. All Rights Reserved. Not to be used or copied for any commercial purpose. Academy Award(s) and Oscar®(s) are registered trademarks and service marks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.