Two Sides To Every Story: American History X

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

Webster’s Dictionary defines ‘gobsmacked’ as “overwhelmed with wonder, surprise, or shock.” Well, sign me up as gobsmacked. Because American History X is perhaps one of the greatest films I’ve ever watched.

The story is of Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton), a neo nazi, who is released from his three year sentence a changed man, but must help his younger brother, Danny (Edward Furlong), from following him down the same route. Not so easy.

Want to watch a ridiculously dark, powerful and bloody film which will leave you ‘gobsmacked’? If not, it doesn’t matter. This is an essential viewing. For some, it may be a struggle to watch, and may make your stomach flip a few times, but this is a film more relevant than ever.

The acting is out of this world. Edward Norton’s performance is just flawless. The difference between Derek at the start of the film, and Derek at the end of the film is simply astonishing. He’s more famous for Fight Club, but it’s another underrated performance in American History X that deserves the praise. The large swastika on his left side of his chest has become something of an iconic image, and rightly so.

Less praised is Edward Furlong, who plays Danny. He beautifully captures the confusion and directionless of youth, not sure what to believe, what is right, what is wrong, and who to trust. The chemistry between the two works perfectly, and not for a moment do you doubt that they are brothers. Obviously, his career is a tragic one, battling drug addition and alcoholism, but you’d imagine this film is still very close to his heart.

I found it interesting to see a film from the point of the view from the other side – the racist side. In recent years, we’ve had a few films about racism and suffering, and most of them are very simple in their messages: ‘racism is wrong’. And, of course, they are correct. But life isn’t as simple as right and wrong, good and bad. American History X explores that. It’s subtle and it’s believable, and it doesn’t try to force anything down your throat. It’s pretty fascinating how everyone in the film seems to have just one wrong role model, and their lives are simply wasted.

I guess what I’m trying to get across is that films that try to explore discrimination often have antagonists with unexplained motives. Why are they racist? Usually, the justification is that these people are just pure evil. And, as I’ve already said, pure evil just doesn’t exist. And trying to put bigots under this one big umbrella is the mistake they commonly make.

You can empathise with American History X’s characters, even the most unlikeable ones, because they have devastating backstories, because they were angry young people, because their beliefs and moral are explained. The racism is not justified, which is an important point, but empathised.

The cinematography is excellent, especially in the black and white flashbacks. You wonder if it has a more metaphorical sense rather than just for artistic reasons – the separation inside Derek’s head between the white people of Vienna beach, and the black people of Vienna beach.

I found it disappointing that Elliott Gould, the likeable actor from such films as M*A*S*H and The Long Goodbye, had such a small part. He is in one the best scenes, when Murray comes over for lunch/dinner, which ends in mayhem, but you feel like the only reason the character is written in is because he’s the stereotypical liberal Jew. The film mainly focuses in on black vs white, which doesn’t quite work as the Holocaust was the mass persecution of mainly Jews, and they are severely underrepresented in this film, which is a massive shame.

‘That scene’. Let’s talk about ‘that scene’. The worst part is not the horrifying death, the sickening scrape of teeth on pavement, but the look Derek gives Danny afterwards. It’s an incredible shot. There’s an intense satisfaction there, an arrogance and an intensity – his eyes are blazing and his pores are sweating manically. This, ladies and gentlemen, is shockingly good acting. In a nutshell.

You could feel something tragic coming from a mile off, yet it still remains unpredictable and heart wrenching. No matter how much our characters change, they will never be able to get away from their dangerous guilt. The film doesn’t provide a hopeful message. Far from it. But it warns that anger and bitterness will provide no solace.

At one point, Sweeney sits in prison with Derek. He asks him a simple question. And this is the point Derek changes.

Has anything you’ve done made your life better?


And all a tearful Derek can do is shake his head. And at the end of the day, this is what American History X is all about.

It’s aged incredibly well, and is as modern and as powerful as ever. With time, it will even grow stronger. The impact of watching this film young is probably most important, and it should be shown in schools all around the world due to its cultural significance – in fact, young and old should all watch this.

American History X: ridiculously underrated, ridiculously good.

American History X – 8.5 out of 10

33 thoughts on “Two Sides To Every Story: American History X

  1. Not an all-time favourite of mine, but it’s a good film. Which is a bit surprising given how much conflict they had over cutting it. I think the director tried to get his name taken off it at one point.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This I have actually read about – Tony Kaye (the director) was previously in advertising, and supposedly they got some great shots, but when they came out the editing room, he had absolutely butchered into something of an extended advert. So Norton got called into the editing room, and after a lot of disagreements with Kaye, they managed to finish the theatrical cut – which was now 40 minutes longer. Of course, this is all hearsay obviously, but from what I’ve read, perhaps he never deserved his name on the film at all.


  2. It certainly packed a wallop when I saw it at the cinema way back and Norton gives a very powerful performance. The subject matter makes it hard to be objective and although it is very well-made it wouldn’t make it into my list of favourite films. Actually, I find Norton very hit and miss. I was very taken with him in Primal Fear but then other performances left me cold – Red Dragon, for example – but I liked him in The Painted Veil.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He can be inconsistent, but at his best, he is *superb*. I think this is a career high performance, and very unfortunate not to win an Oscar. Of course, he definitely isn’t perfect, and compared to the top actors in the game, he’s nowhere near. But he deserves recognition for his excellent talent, and that shone through in American History X.


        1. Who won it that year? Roberto Benigni?
          I think it was for Life Is Beautiful, which I haven’t watched yet so I can’t say it was unfair, but Norton does give one hell of a performance.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. This movie is truly amazing. A film that manages to speak very well about racism and neo-Nazism and how the latter uses people for their own purposes, deluding them. A very powerful and strong film, capable of making people think. A film also very difficult to see due to its nastiness, but a vision necessary now more than ever.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Completely agree – you’ve got it spot on with everything. The way that they go out looking for youngish people to influence them makes you wonder about racism as a whole. Do they truly believe in their ideals, or are they just out for power and dominance? These are people with a lot of hate bottled up inside them, who also know how to make money. The question is whether they’re truly out for the hate, or for the money. American History X is more important than ever, and it’s sad to see that many people – especially young people – haven’t seen it. It’s not only amazing – it’s vitally important.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I saw this when it came out. Norton was outstanding in it. I would like to see it again. Thank you for your always insightful writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s aged incredibly well, and is as modern and as powerful as ever. With time, it will even grow stronger. The impact of watching this film young is probably most important, and it should be shown in schools all around the world due to its cultural significance – in fact, young and old should all watch this.

    That’s how I felt about Angry Birds 2.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Did you just copy and paste one of my paragraphs and just use it as your own comment? Oh, that’s a new low. Make all the Angry Birds 2 references you like, it won’t soften the blow. Very disappointing.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I like American History X too. If you like porridge so much, why don’t you review that? And who knows – perhaps I will review Angry Birds! You’ve certainly sparked a desire.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Up there among the best Penn films, no doubt, probably tied with We’re No Angels for top spot. It deals with a tricky subject, and comes out winning. Probably didn’t get the awards it deserved because of all the controversy.

          Liked by 1 person

        3. For sure, for sure, I see what you mean. There’s an edge, a resentment, a real passion for the project that is tangible from top to bottom in Angry Birds. A film like no other.

          Liked by 1 person

        4. I’d also recommend Free Birds in which a group of turkeys steal a time machine to stop the first Thanksgiving. Surprised Penn wasn’t involved, but it’s incendiary stuff.

          Liked by 2 people

  6. I’m with you 100% on this one. An oustanding film, and Norton is undeniably one of the best actors of his generation, suitably paired up with a convincing Furlong. I class it as one of those ‘once seen, never forgotten films’.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cheers Pete. I find Norton very underrated, and he’s often given unfair treatment because of a few duds. American History X certainly leaves an impression on the memory, and an important one. I feel like rewatching it right now!

      Liked by 1 person

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