Top critical review
33 people found this helpful
Hell, good intentions and all that. [2.5 stars]
on June 5, 2005
American History X had a ton of potential to be a really great film, with a powerful anti-racism message and a deep look into the heart of white supremacy in America. What it ends up being is a showcase for Ed Norton's BRILLIANT acting and a movie that appeals more to emotion than to logic and reason, an example of Hollywood politicking gone awry.
Take the scene at the dinner table for instance, with white supremacist teen Derek Vinyard getting into a debate with his mother's boyfriend, a Jewish teacher played by Eliot Gould. Many of the points Derek makes in this scene, and throughout the movie (once you strip away the racial slurs and Derek's skinhead image) are scarily, devastating LOGICAL, and often factually correct right down to the statistics.
This position is never really given any sort of strong debate throughout the movie. Instead, Tony Kaye prefers to equate right-wing/conservative rhetoric with white supremacists, a cheap and logically flawed shot. Norton's character makes clear and rational arguments against affirmative action and the LA riots, but of course since he's the one with swastika tattoos he's not granted one ounce of credibility. We are expected to believe that if one doesn't buy into the Left's viewpoint on race relations they are automatically vile, contemptible racist pigs, capable of beating their own families and killing in cold blood; strawman reasoning at its worst.
The movie expects us to connect the dots, rhetoric with acts of violence (ex. Derek gives speech about illegal immigration from Mexico, then along with his cronies attacks a store run by Asian folks). Racism doesn't necessarily lead to violence; it can be (and often is) a more insidious force. Kaye prefers to beat us over the head with melodramatic constant reminders that "RACISM IS BAD" rather than reach past emotion and present us with a stronger, more considered argument.
On top of that, Derek's conversion in prison is way too sudden and poorly thought out to be realistic. No skinhead as adamant as Norton's character will suddenly change his tune after having a good-natured conversation with one black man. If anything, the threat of gang rape by the skinhead prisonmates he was once in league with would force Derek to abandon racism for one utilitarian reason; it failed to protect him from abuse. There is not enough of a moral impetus here to make for Derek's transformation into a Gandhi figure.
Still despite all this negative baggage, American History X is not without its powerful moments, as it comes with some of the rawest, most shocking violence in cinema history. The brutal scene where Derek murders two black men after they attempt to steal his truck had me cringing*, as did the other scenes of rape and violence strewn throughout the film. I've seen some pretty gory films, but there are few that have made me this uncomfortable to watch. And the idea that racism is a vicious cycle, as Derek's brother Danny (played by Edward Furlong) inherits his brother's Nazi ideals and his former gang, certainly has merit. It also offers an interesting look into the Aryan Youth subculture and what encourages these blue-collar white kids to adopt Neo-Nazism. Too bad American History X doesn't solidify its prescence with a strong logical argument rather than simply playing to emotion and shocking imagery to further its points.
* Despite what some other reviewers have said, shooting two men as they are FLEEING and stomping a man's head into a curb is NOT a natural or morally correct defense of one's property--let's be realistic here, that's cold murder.