American History X (1998) 4.22/5 (2)


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Rating: The Good – 80.3
Genre: Drama, Crime
Duration: 119 mins
Director: Tony Kaye
Stars: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Beverly D’Angelo

An intense excavation into the heart of racism adorned by some powerful yet tempered direction and a tour de force lead performance by Edward Norton. Told largely from the perspective of a young white supremiscist who was sent to prison for the brutal murder of two black car thieves, American History X repeatedly flashes back from the present tense to the teenage years of the intelligent but deeply troubled teenager when he initially turned to hatred and racism as an outlet for his pent up anger. Through these non-sequential interludes, shot in a stark monochrome, writer David McKenna and director Tony Kaye show us, in unflinching and forensic detail, all the manipulation of logic and selective but misguided venting of anger that defines bigotry.

Norton is superb in the way he captures this young man’s burning intelligence only to wilfully stifle logic when he sees it as a roadblock to his rationalisations. He also pulls off that most difficult of acting tricks by transforming his character to fit the more enlightened man his various experiences in prison turned him into. He is surrounded by some great supporting talent too with Avery Brooks and Edward Furlong shining as his former principal and impressionable but equally clever younger brother respectively.

If there’s a problem here, then perhaps it lies in its depiction of the Norton’s young, impressionable, and angsty white supremacists peers. The film does account for how the rantings of one shrew and well funded racist can help recruit an army of emotionally disenfranchised youth, but only in narration, as Kaye chooses instead to depict anyone not integral to the story in a somewhat shallow fashion. This is not a unique failing in films like this but it is more starkly revealed here given the thorough job all concerned did in explaining the motivations and psychology of the principal characters. It’s a bit of a pity because, that issue aside, American History X is as objective an attempt to explain the roots of racism as modern cinema has offered.

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