American History X
Starring: Edward Norton, Ed Furlong
Co-Starring: Beverley D'Angelo (of National Lampoon fame!), Fairuza Balk, Avery Brooks
Times Watched: 1
Rotten Tomatoes / Metacritic: 84% / 62
Road To Ownership: This is another one of the boy's movies that I've never watched. Apparently he watched it in 'Electronics', aka the high school filmmaking course he took. It struck him enough that he bought it and watched it one more time, but last night was the first time he'd watched it in however many years.
The Plot: The film opens with Danny Vinyard rousing his brother Derek from having sex with his girlfriend because a couple of black guys are jacking his car. As a revered neo-Nazi, Derek snaps, pulls a gun on the hooligans (who, for the record, are specifically targeting him after a basketball court feud), and ends up killing them. Three years later and Derek is quietly released from prison, a changed man. He is disturbed to find out however, that Danny has spent the last three years idolizing his older brother and falling into the same cult-like devotedness to Cameron, the man that first brainwashed Derek with Nazi idealism all those years ago. Danny has been tasked with writing an essay about Derek's arrest and the events that led him there, which we hear about through Danny's voiceover and see in flashbacks provided by both brothers.
The Good & The Bad: This movie was very different from what I thought it would be, partially because at one point I assumed it was about Malcolm X (durr). It was stirring, but not in as haunting a way as one might think. Sure it was disturbing to see these people so filled with hatred and bile, and everytime Ed Norton had his shirt off, you definitely did a double take (and not just because his bod was ridiculous) at his tattoos, but really the filmmaker did an excellent job at showing the sheer naivete of the characters, especially Derek's 'rise' and fall so to speak in the Neo-Nazi world.
In this instance, the black & white really worked for the flashbacks. Aside from making it easy to jump back and forth across plot points, it also served as a visual reminder that Derek used to see things quite literally in black and white, that his vision was very obscured and cut and dry. The progression of his character from the smug, vicious killer we see in the beginning to the desperate, searching man at the end were excellently delivered through the story's set-up, and most importantly, through Ed Norton's incredible acting job (but more on him later). There was some beautiful artistry (even when it was painful to watch) throughout, although sometimes the director got a little too friendly with the slow motion / high-speed camera effect.
There are a couple of weak areas though. The film does a good job of setting you up for some tension, that something bad will happen, you just don't know what (although in review, the repeated importance of the relationship between Derek and Danny and the 'what if it happened to you?' discussions set things up quite well for the ending). However, I felt like the specific delivery of the ending was kind of random...which debatably might have been the point, but it still didn't feel like a balanced payoff to how the film opened.
I have less problems with the ending than I do with some of the shadowyness regarding what Sweeney (the black principal that encourages both brothers to see the error of their ways) was trying to get Derek to do, both when he visited him in jail and towards the end when him and the cop asked him to 'step in' and talk to his people...whatever that meant. I felt like Sweeney working with the cops and collaborating with Derek and teaching Danny all could have had a stronger payoff / connection to one another. In fact Sweeney's character was kind of a bizarre shadowy enigma - why DID a guy with two doctorates settle with being a principal / vigilante justice seeker in a rough area of LA? I don't know. In general it felt like there were a number of loose threads that weren't wrapped up quite as smoothly as they could have been. I also sincerely wonder what effect the final major event in the film would have on all of the main characters. I sort of feel like a teacher writing in the comments of a paper you turn in - I wish they had just pushed things a little further in some areas.
One final note. A lot of people have noted that the film goes for shock value in order to elevate itself - the infamous curb stomping and shower raping scene in particular are frequently cited. While I couldn't watch the curb stomping, I think the inclusion of those particular scenes was there to show the monumental shifts in power and in effect, demeanour, of Derek, and thus were well-executed and important to the story.
Best Scene: The opening scene was very artfully, dramatically directed - music and all - and the return to it midway through the film (with more context) was truly chilling. The glint in Edward Norton's eyes, the feeling of 'this is my chance!' in comparison to the reformed man we've gotten to know provided an excellent character study.
Worst Scene: I found the dinner table flashback a little hard to follow - were they talking about the grocery store the gang Danny and Derek belong to knocked over? - and also a little long, and a little frustrating to watch. Also I'm uncertain about the timing - did that conversation happen the same night that Derek got arrested? In retrospect it provided a very good set-up for the ending, but it was a little oblique compared to the rest of the film.
Best Character: Derek, obviously. I don't know why he isn't more appreciated, but Ed Norton is easily one of my favourite Hollywood actors, without me ever explicitly stating it. Whenever I see a film with him in it I'm amazed by the levels of depth and interest he can bring to a whole range of characters. In this film in particular, he has the most expressive eyes I've ever seen - especially as demonstrated in the jail scenes.
Worst Character: Davina, the boys' sister. She felt like dead space, other than to be a marginally more forceful commentary than their somewhat oblivious mother about how stupid Danny and Derek are being in their devotion to Cam at different points. It's also baffling because she seems way older than she apparently is. Her weird maturity and total disbelief in the boys' naivete just feels jarring compared to Danny's security in Cameron. You would think with a sister so adamant against his skinhead lifestyle and a brother in jail, Danny would smarten up, but apparently Divina is useless. Also Seth Ryan (played by Hollywood's go to angry / fat character actor Ethan Suplee) was hella annoying, but that was the point I think.
Soundtrack of Our Lives: An interesting mix. The haunting choir score of the opening and closing was used to great effect- these innocent angelic voices against the monstrous acts we witness. Beyond that you've mostly got some thrasher rock music here and there.
If You Like This You'll Like: Well, anything with Edward Norton logically. Also films about counterculture, jail, and racial tensions. Trainspotting and Requiem for A Dream come to mind for some reason. Boys In The Hood, Elephant...
Final Grade: 3.5/5