DVR reviews are back. This is the 4th edition of DVR reviews where I review a film that was overlooked, underrated, or just a film you might only catch on cable on a boring Saturday afternoon. So far I've looked at Kick-Ass 2, The Ladykillers, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. This edition's film received better critical reception than the others, but is still less acclaimed than it should be. American History X is an extraordinary film that took me by surprise.
Edward Norton is a god. I am fully convinced now. I immediately became a fan of Edward Norton after I saw Fight Club my sophomore year of high school. I loved his Oscar-nominated performance as Mike Shiner in last year's Best Picture winner Birdman and it's a shame he only got to play the Hulk in one Marvel movie (he's probably too good for Hollywood blockbusters at this point anyway). Norton's portrayal of Derek Vinyard is a brutal and honest look at a topic that is seldom discussed in mainstream Hollywood movies. His performance got him an Oscar nod, but he lost to Roberto Benigni of Life is Beautiful which is an exceptional film, but does not generate the same shock and raw emotion of Edward Norton as a former neo-Nazi.
From the film's opening scene, the tone of American History X is set very clearly. The picture is in black and white, which sets a dark tone for the scene. Derek (Norton) is having sex with his equally racist girlfriend (Fairuza Balk, Vicki Vallencourt from The Waterboy!) while his brother Danny (Edward Furlong, a.k.a. John fucking Connor from Terminator 2, one of the greatest action movies ever made) lays in another room, unable to fall asleep. Suddenly Danny's attention is drawn outside his window where 3 black men are attempting to steal Derek's car. Danny alerts his brother and Derek goes outside wearing only a pair of boxers and boots, armed with a gun prepared for a confrontation with the men. The results are disastrous needless to say. We are then taken to present day where Danny is in trouble at school for writing an essay on Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf. Facing possible expulsion, the principal of the school tells Danny to write a paper on his brother, who has just been released from a 3-year prison sentence.
The film is presented in a brilliant nonlinear narrative, alternating between scenes of Derek's past (shot in black and white) and present day (shot in color). This style reminded me of Christopher Nolan's Memento in that it allows the viewer to slowly unravel the whole picture and make sense of the events in the film (if you haven't seen Memento you need to rethink your life). The nonlinear structure is not as extreme as Memento or a Quentin Tarantino film, but Tony Kaye's cinematography shows a sharp contrast between 2 different worlds. The black and white scenes represent a world of ignorance, hate, and to some extent hopelessness. Derek Vinyard is a respected figure in his community despite the very essence of his character being rooted in a perpetual state of hatred. One of the most uncomfortable scenes of the movie is a flashback to Derek and his neo-Nazi posse (Ethan Suplee's character might be more racist than Derek) playing a group of African-Americans in basketball for possession of the local basketball court. As a viewer, I was confused as to whether I should be happy for Derek and his group as they win the game or disdainful towards their treatment of the losing team. The scene does not at all show the neo-Nazis in a positive light, but it's probably the most unsettling basketball game scene in cinema history.
The present day sequences in color contrast the dark themes of the flashbacks with themes of hope and redemption. While the black and white scenes focus primarily on Derek, the present day scenes focus on Danny. Given that Derek is released from jail and wishes to abandon his past lifestyle, we are given a sense of hope through Danny. Danny, like his older brother at his age, is not seen as a bad kid, but someone who lives based on principles and beliefs enforced upon him. He knows no other life than his communion with the neo-Nazis and has trouble accepting Derek's revelation. Edward Furlong is not great, but delivers with a very believable performance as a teenager living as a product of his environment. Through Danny, Derek has a chance to partially amend for his past decisions and give his family a better future.
Norton's acting single-handedly makes this film stellar. His blatant racism towards not only African-Americans but also Jews and Hispanics (basically anyone who's not white) is very polarizing and shocking. I seriously wonder if Norton every lost any sleep over this role. His anti-semitic rant is highly unsettling and he even uses the word "niglet!" Equally powerful to his racist scenes are the present day scenes where Derek serves as the moral center of the film. His on-screen presence is almost impossible to describe. Edward Norton's performance is just one you have to see for yourself, as a viewer I could tell that he put a lot into this performance (as he always does). The rest of the actors look like the cast of a movie based on a young-adult book series compared to Norton, but they all deliver. Beverly D'Angelo (best known for starring in the Vacation film series) stood out to me in particular as Derek and Danny's mother. Her emotions felt genuine as she is conflicted between living her own life and staying involved in Derek and Danny's lives, trying her best to make sure Danny has a promising future. Ethan Suplee is a very convincing overweight, racist asshole. Guy Torry and Avery Brooks give good supporting roles as an inmate of Derek's and Danny's principal, respectively. There's nothing lacking in this film in terms of acting.
The only problem I had with this film was Derek's transformation from an innocent, bright young kid to a brutal, deeply-flawed neo-Nazi could have been explored in greater detail, but the viewer gets the idea. American History X is a powerful film that provokes thought, discussion, and that needs to be viewed by everyone.