American History X, a hard-edged look at American neo-Nazis, arrives in theaters with a lot of behind-the-scenes baggage: First-time director Tony Kaye has engaged in a protracted, high-profile battle with distributor-producer New Line Cinema over the film's final form.
From the outside it's hard to judge whether this is a case of heavy-handed studio interference or of petulant antics by a publicity-hungry filmmaker. (The two are not mutually exclusive.) In Kaye's defense, his characterization of the studio's version as "preachy" is on the mark. At the same time, unless there is missing footage that is wildly different from what is now on screen, it's impossible to imagine what sort of tinkering could have elevated this manipulative, steamroller-subtle melodrama into something worth fighting over.
Edward Norton stars as Derek Vinyard, an allegedly intelligent Venice, California, youth whose father, a fireman, is murdered by gang bangers while putting out a blaze in the ghetto. Derek already has a racist bent; his understandable fury over his father's death is quickly exacerbated by Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach), a slimy neo-Nazi looking for a way to expand his power base among the young. Derek, a natural leader, becomes Alexander's lieutenant, organizing pathetic losers such as the slovenly, imbecilic Seth (Ethan Suplee) into a gang of white-power, skinhead thugs.
When armed blacks try to steal Derek's truck, he kills two of them, and as a result is sentenced to three years in prison. While he does time, his little brother Danny (Edward Furlong), motivated by Derek's martyrdom, starts to emulate his older brother, much to the dismay of their mother (Beverly D'Angelo) and sister (Jennifer Lien), who inexplicably appear to be kindly liberals.
The film's main time frame -- which is intercut with numerous black-and-white flashbacks -- is the 24-hour stretch after Derek is released from prison.
Danny's history teacher (Elliott Gould), a Jew who has, not coincidentally, dated the brothers' mother, is enraged when Danny uses an assignment about the civil rights struggle to turn in a paper about Mein Kampf. After Danny makes the case that Hitler saw his struggle as one for civil rights, the school's wise and patient black principal (Avery Brooks) demands that he write a second paper -- this one about Derek. The paper gives the filmmakers an excuse to indulge in flashbacks and voice-over narration.
As soon as Derek arrives home, however, it is clear that he has changed. His behavior shocks Danny, Cameron, Seth and Derek's animal-like girlfriend (Fairuza Balk, whose characterization runs the gamut from rabid to rabid): He's acting almost like ... well ... the enemy. (While Mom and Sis are understandably pleased, it's never clear why they appear totally unsurprised.)
Yes, Derek has had a major, life-changing experience in prison, one that causes him to repudiate everything he previously believed in. In a 25-minute flashback that starts roughly 70 minutes into the 118-minute movie, Derek explains to Danny how his life has been turned around. At least that's what he's supposed to be explaining. If only! Because we know from the beginning that Derek is a changed man, the film builds suspense by withholding just how that change occurred. When we finally find out, the answer is neither compelling nor convincing enough to justify the wait.
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In essence, this is what American History X offers as a central theme: Aimless white kids with bad lives may develop fascist, scapegoating excuses for their plight, but when exposed to their victims' realities they can change and realize the errors of their ways. This is hardly a news flash. Still, when presented well, such a simple idea seems profound compared to what drives most current Hollywood movies. But it's not presented well; the film fails dramatically as well as ideologically. Granted, there is some emotional engagement, achieved almost entirely by bullying the audience. Rubbing our noses in depictions of rape, killing and savage beatings is the cheapest way to enlist our emotional support.
Wait, I take that back. It's the second-cheapest way. The cheapest way is to pump up every confrontation with disproportionately melodramatic music, music designed to convince the audience of a scene's excitement and power. The score by British composer Anne Dudley does this repeatedly: A basketball game becomes the Battle of the Bulge.
While it could be argued that years of desensitizing on-screen violence has forced Kaye (or New Line) to bludgeon us in an effort to make points about political terror, another New Line current release refutes that assumption. Pleasantville manages to segue from a light pop fantasy into a story about the darker side of American history without ever preaching or dropping its basically fanciful conceit. It may not be perfect, but it succeeds in all the ways that Kaye's (or New Line's) film fails.
American History X.
Directed by Tony Kaye. With Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Beverly D'Angelo, Elliott Gould and Fairuza Balk.