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?Sweeney
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