American History X (1998)

D: Tony Kaye
S: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Beverly d'Angelo

Thoughtful but over directed film exploring some of the roots of right wing frustration with contemporary American society. It is overlaid with a liberal reformist story of how diehard neo-nazi Edward Norton emerges from prison after three years for the murder of two black men and attempts to convince his younger brother (Edward Furlong), who worships him, that all he had previously believed is wrong. Directed and photographed by advertisment-maker Tony Kaye, the film is weighted down by more than one unnecessarily elaborate visual tour-de-force moment, but is kept afloat with convincing performances and a solid script by David McKenna.

The story is told in a mixture of flashback and real time seen from the perspective of the younger brother. When he turns in a term paper extolling the virtues of Hitler's Mein Kampf, Jewish history teacher Elliot Gould turns him over to Principal Avery Brooks (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Spenser), who encourages him to be more critical and discerning in his study of his brother's life. When Norton is then released he shocks everyone with his radical ideological and emotional transformation, and impressionable Furlong has difficulty dealing with it. A series of confrontations with his former nazi cronies follows, including a showdown with puppetmaster Stacy Keach.

Though simplistic in many respects, especially in the dynamics of its 'con makes good' plot (a long established genre in its own terms to which neither McKenna nor Kaye bring any new twists), the film dives straight into difficult and important issues, confronting areas of contemporary American socio-political life only beginning to be fully explored (Arlington Road). This alone makes it worth seeing and discussing at a later time, but it is mainly on the level of performance that the film actually hits home. Norton provides a powerful centre and is convincing even when the events on screen stretch credibility or are too convenient to be authentic. The film is at its strongest during the ensemble scenes, particularly the confrontation between Norton and Gould at the family dinner table. Kaye allows his camera to sit relatively still here, and the human drama emerges through subtle characterisation which never allows the lines between good and evil to be too easily discernible. Norton handles the difficult transition from bad boy to model citizen well. He gives his character an internal strength which sustains both personae, and does not shy from portraying the paranoia which comes with his otherwise rather too smooth transformation. The film is not so idealised as to suggest there is no psychological or emotional price to be paid for what happens to him, but it is Norton himself who makes this work on screen.

Support from the rest of the cast is also good, with Beverly d'Angelo working well through a character whose illness obviously symbolises the cancer that is rotting away the American soul, and thus limits her freedom to expand and enlarge upon its human dimensions. Keach is nicely chilling as the manipulating intellectual force behind the brainless skinheads who flock to him in response to their empty lives, and Brooks handles himself relatively well as his spiritual opposite. Furlong is very good as the younger brother, also playing quite a complex set of changes which don't register unless you accept the premise in the first place (is this really the way it would happen?). He plays well alongside Norton. Jennifer Lien (Star Trek: Voyager) has relatively little to do as a female sibling, but holds her place in the ensemble moments.

To a certain extent, the film is reminiscent of 'educational' dramas like i.d. where the actual qualities of the film are not so much in the work itself as what questions it raises. Kaye is largely responsible for its failure to move beyond this level, and though there are some stylish moments, they are merely style and have no real cinematic substance. The script is schematic but effective, and it would have taken a more systematic, formal directorial style to match it. This is the kind of material Sidney Lumet would work brilliantly with. An excitable cinematographer/director like Kaye (who loudly denied any relationship with the final film for reasons best understood by himself) was really not the best choice, though his flamboyance has given the film some legs with generation Xers who find MTV style ideological advertisement a valid cultural form.

Nonetheless American History X is worth watching, and it raises many pertinent questions with enough good craftsmanship to be considered worthwhile cinema. Norton continues an interesting career path following the likes of Primal Fear, Everyone Says I Love You, and The People vs. Larry Flynt and though it is arguable that the film becomes more a vehicle for him than is good for it, this could equally be said of many fine topical dramas of the past including Angels With Dirty Faces, Rebel Without a Cause and On the Waterfront. The truth will out and time will tell if this film has the staying power to overcome its current perceived weaknesses. Perhaps then Kaye will be more eager to accept credit.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.