If you're just not cynical and depressed enough these days, and feeling the need to see the uglier side of human nature, you could do worse than to watch American History X, a muddled but brutal and at times disturbing look at how hate can destroy people.
Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton's performance is the reason to see this movie) is a neo-Nazi skinhead who's the puppet of a white supremacist (Stacy Keach) and who's idolized by the disaffected white kids in his run-down California beach town. One night Derek kills two black men who were trying to steal his truck, and gets sent to the big house. Several years later, Derek's a free man, and his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) is following in Derek's skinhead footsteps. Only it seems that Derek has, while in the slams, seen the error of his ways.
American History X is at times a very frustrating film in that it seems perpetually to be walking a tightrope. Tony Kaye's direction is at times effective, but is marred by heavy-handedness and a melodramatic score that has both choirs and “danger music” (thankfully not at the same time). The screenplay can't quite decide what it wants to be: at several times it threatens to become a police drama, and often – particularly when Furlong narrates – it seems like a really messed-up Afterschool Special (with nudity, profanity, and prison rape).
Likewise the acting veers between brilliance and banality. Norton is the center of the film. He's visually captivating – he packed on 30 pounds of muscle for the role – and he radiates a creepy charisma as the skinhead leader. It's not hard to see why he's so idolized by these losers looking for somewhere to focus their rage and someone to give their lives meaning. It's almost as if Norton plays three different characters over the course of the film: soft-spoken teenage Derek who absorbs his father's casual racism; skinhead Derek who looks elated when he finally has a chance to (he feels justifiably) kill a black man; and enlightened Derek who knows what he's done is wrong but who still sometimes resorts to violence.
Unfortunately, Norton's great performance just makes the other cast members look worse. Edward Furlong isn't as annoying as he was in Terminator 2 (he could hardly be more annoying) but his character is a cipher, a pawn, and Furlong doesn't give us any reason to care about him. Avery Brooks is good as Norton's former and Furlong's current teacher, but isn't given enough to do. And Elliot Gould is just embarrassing as another teacher.
The violence of American History X is, save for one instance, not gory but it is disturbing. But more unsettling is the way hate and violence unravel an ordinary American family. There's the semi-notorious “bite the curb” scene, but for some reason the scene where a dinner argument degenerates into violence lingers longer in the memory.
American History X succeeds with its portrayal of Derek and his character arc; it fails with what it means to say about racism. With one exception (Derek's father) the hate is extreme – skinheads and gangbangers. It's all too easy to dismiss them as cartoonish and far-fetched. If as much thought had gone into the story as it did into Derek's character, and if Kaye had restrained some of his stylistic flourishes, American History X could have been a much more powerful film.
Extras are minimal – trailers and deleted scenes.