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Review: 'American History X' too black and white

Web posted on:
Friday, October 30, 1998 9:30:07 AM EST

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- "American History X" is a movie about simpletons that often seems to have been written for them, too. OK, I take the first part of that back; the two main characters are only supposed to be simple in their racial beliefs. Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) may be a skinhead with a massive swastika tattooed on his chiseled torso, but, otherwise, he's a real sharp guy.

The same goes for his little brother, Danny (Edward Furlong), who looks up to Derek and shares his self-righteous hatred of blacks and Jews while still being a crackerjack essay writer back at Venice Beach High.

Theatrical preview for "American History X"

Windows Media: 28k or 56k
Real: 28k or 56k

The movie's main storytelling device even centers on Danny's latent writing ability. After turning in a glowing review of Hitler's "Mein Kampf" when asked to discuss a book about civil rights, Danny's now being forced by a concerned, hard-love school teacher (Avery Brooks, sort of a cross between a linebacker and Maya Angelou) to write an account of Derek's journey from the "heights" of murderous skinhead leadership to the depths of brutal rape in a prison shower. (That way Kaye can insert pretentiously shot black & white flashbacks.) No matter how clever the Vinyard brothers are, though, there's always that troublesome Aryan Nation rhetoric clouding up their thinking.

Derek repents after his stay in jail due to the friendship of a black inmate and the assault by his racist brethren. But Danny is still a rabid believer, spewing sadly misinformed bile while hanging with White-power speed metal freaks and the like.

A litany of questions

Will Derek be able to force his kid brother to see the light before it's too late? Will Derek's old Nazi cronies kick in his reformed head before his mission is complete? Will director Tony Kaye ever quit calling unneeded attention to himself by getting fancy-shmancy with the cinematography? Will screenwriter David McKenna realize that his characters sound like they're making statistic-heavy speeches rather than simply talking to each other around the dinner table like actual people? And, most importantly, are we automatically supposed to be moved by a story simply because it deals with such an incendiary topic?

These questions are all answered (not always satisfactorily) by the time "American History X" runs its pat course. But the Kaye and McKenna questions both receive a resounding "no," thus tainting what few truly challenging moments there are in the movie.

If you've never stumbled across the concept of racism before, these two guys spend a great deal of time supplying you with a definition. It's just difficult to imagine whom they're preaching to. I find it highly unlikely that any neo-Nazis are going to jump up in the theater and start weeping when they suddenly realize the wrong-headedness of what they've been doing. Everybody else gets the point, so why repeatedly tell them what they already know?

For about the first 45 minutes of the film, I couldn't figure out why a lot of the dialogue sounded so familiar to me. I don't mean the profane racist content, mind you, which really hasn't been dealt with this vehemently in a commercial film before. I'm talking about the pedantically jabbering tone of the understanding characters in the movie. They're so aggressively un-racist, a multitude of enlightening numbers, theories, and descriptively poetic concepts lie at their very fingertips. And they're more than ready to dispense the wisdom at the drop of a hat.

Eventually, I figured out what was bothering me -- they sound like Rob Reiner does on "All in the Family" when he gets heated up and starts to too-precisely explain his position to poor old, uncomprehending Archie. Just like you do when Meathead gets going, you fully appreciate the sentiment while wishing the message could be delivered by someone besides a big blowhard.

Predictable soap-boxing

You have to expect this kind of thing, though. When Hollywood attacks a volatile issue, it inevitably spoon-feeds you the main components of the issue several times over, then calls it a day. Character development and motivation are viewed as relatively unimportant concerns when the main topic is so visceral, so lacerating. Hell, character development and motivation are almost always neglected, even if there isn't that juicy topic waiting to be dealt with. In the end, then, you have a political campaign pamphlet that cost several million dollars to print and can be easily understood after no more than a cursory glance.

Just as it is in the recent "Slam," which dealt with the evils of racism from a much different perspective, the main concept is covered from every possible angle, short of breaking it down into Esperanto or feeding it through the theater air conditioning vents as smoke signals.

That we've got a couple of violently racist young men here is where the movie should start, folks. The multitude of intolerant acts and misguided people in their past obviously needs to be dealt with, but it makes you feel like the real movie (which would hopefully examine the issue through a far broader spectrum of thought) is waiting for you somewhere just beyond the horizon. So you keep marching onward in your jackboots and suspenders, praying for a unique thought that never comes.

The only part that really worked for me was Norton's stay in prison, due mostly to the fact that his character is finally forced to think in more than one heedless direction. His conversion to the good side of the force comes a little too quickly for my liking, but it has an undeniable power. Norton is a great actor, and I've never seen him try to force a sentiment. It's just that he only has two sentiments to play with this time: "I hate everyone who isn't white" and "I used to hate everyone who isn't white."

Even when he punches out the middle-aged leader of the Skinheads (Stacy Keach, who's so good you almost enjoy the beating), the events quickly get pushed away, probably because they're too troublesome to deal with when you're gearing up to deliver your umpteenth peace-and-love sermon. Derek is certainly not off the hook in the eyes of his former cronies when the movie ends, but it ends anyway. If he were a real person, I'm sure he wouldn't be alive to read this review.

Remaining cast unimpressive

The rest of the performers, outside of the impressive Norton, are no more than serviceable. I don't know what the hell happened to Elliot Gould over the years, but nowadays he delivers his dialogue like he doesn't know what the words are actually supposed to mean. This most naturalistic of actors (get a load of how effortlessly cool he is in "M*A*S*H" and "The Long Goodbye") is now stiff as a board, playing a would-be suitor to the boys' mother as if he's doing it to pay off a bet.

Beverly D'Angelo (who usually impresses me) plays Mom by crying a lot and smoking too many cigarettes. Furlong, on the other hand, couldn't possibly win; he's portraying a symbolic construct, not a character.

And then there's Fairuza Balk as Derek's Nazi-trash girlfriend, Stacey. I remember seeing Balk when she was just a little girl in Walter Murch's misguided "Return to Oz," and even back then she was fabulous. I've always expected her to blossom into a big-time actress, but something elemental is getting lost as she enters adulthood.

Too many times I've noticed her cultivating a snarl and flashing her big eyes rather than trying to deliver a full-bodied performance. Her she is again, baring her fangs and screaming like a party-girl banshee. An actress with this much real promise shouldn't be forced to trade on the fact that she looks like she digs body piercing. Give her a real role, for heaven's sake!

"American History X" is one of the most nauseatingly violent films I've ever seen. There's full-frontal nudity and sex, and tons of profanity, but the brutality is terribly disturbing. Norton's rape in the shower is bad enough, but at one point he forces open a black man's mouth and stomps on his head as his teeth rest against the curb. I know it happened, but I couldn't watch it. Rated R. 110 minutes.

New Line Cinema, a Time Warner property, is a sister company to CNN Interactive.

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