American History X, starring Edward Norton and Edward Furlong -- A Movie Review
Riveting drama and ugly truth make this a must-see movie
Human history is a timeline of hate. At no point since the beginning of recorded human history has there been a time when there was no hate, no one prejudiced against others because of differences in race, creed, or family. Sadly, the cycle continues today in every corner of the modern world. Perhaps the worst embodiment of that hate in the United States is the racial hatred espoused by neo-Nazi groups, often collectively referred to as “skinheads.”
American History X looks at "skinhead" Neo-Nazis in the United States
Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) is the quintessential skinhead. He is fully consumed by his hate for blacks, Jews, and any kind of immigrant to the United States. These are people he feels are parasites to the nation and should be deported or exterminated, whichever comes first. Even worse, he is an articulate, intelligent, and charismatic man who can make the ideas he champions seem perfectly reasonable. While in prison for killing two black men who were trying to steal his car, Derek learns about the other side to that story. After his release, he has to find a way to dissuade his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) from following the path on which Derek himself set him.
In order to save Danny from the world of Neo-Nazi idealism, Derek has to dive back in. He encounters all of his old friends and acquaintances, many of whom praise him for the homicides that put him in prison. What unfolds is a tale of a massive internal struggle, as well as the fight against a monster that Derek himself had largely created. Danny's life hangs in the balance -- and so, too, will Derek's once his old comrades discover that he's not exactly who he used to be.
Deciding to watch American History X
When I first put this film on my Netflix list I really wasn’t sure what to expect. Edward Norton tends to pick some pretty good roles and the subject sounded intriguing, so I decided it was worth a try. As expected, the movie was fairly difficult to watch in places as pure, unadulterated hate is always difficult to see. What I hadn’t expected, however, is the exquisite storytelling that portrays both the root and the result of this kind of hate.
Not familiar with the various groups that espouse hate, and are still alive and well in today's world? Here is a potentially eye-opening overview that will help you familiarize yourself with some of the more extreme and intolerant viewpoints.
American History X cast critique
Edward Furlong is one of those actors who always seems to play some really bad roles, with the occasional outstanding ones thrown in. This is one of those outstanding roles, and I think I’ve finally decided that, despite his choices of roles throughout his career, he is actually a pretty good actor. In this role he portrayed his conflicted character perfectly, producing someone that viewers want to like but that continues to veer down the wrong road. This film brilliantly portrays the conflict experienced by a boy who is trying to follow in the steps of all of the role models in his life, yet is suddenly told that that is all wrong.
I must say that Ethan Suplee played the one of the most noisome characters I have ever seen in a film, second only to the roles played by Leonardo di Caprio and David Thewlis in Total Eclipse. Maybe it’s just because this severely obese, bigoted, and short-tempered man reminded me so much of my ex-husband, but whatever the reason he was an excellent choice for the role as he played this hateful character wonderfully. This is the guy that everyone loves to hate, except those who agree with him…and even they don’t really like him very much. Suplee did an excellent job with this character, I know I was certainly revolted to the point of nausea.
Gritty dramas that address human rights and the whole spectrum of hate
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Production and quality of American History X
The production value for this film is surprisingly brilliant. The producers took full advantage of lighting and atmosphere to give the sense of being immersed in that inner-city, neo-Nazi world. In many respects, that atmosphere is cultivated into a nether-world, Hades type feel that indicates the wrongness that it represents. Flags, propaganda posters, and the dark world of the skinheads is contrasted with the lighter world of someone who has seen both sides and is trying to get out of it…but first he must go back into the dark to try to pull his brother out of it. In other words, this is very much a modern Orpheus and Eurydice saga, only with brothers rather than spouses.
The only big goof I saw in the whole thing is that Edward Norton had a number of white supremacy tattoos all over his body, including a very vivid swastika on his chest, yet in scenes where he was wearing a long-sleeved white shirt that one could see his skin through there were no tattoos.
Should you watch American History X?
Overall this was an excellent movie, though not for everyone. There is a lot of violence, a lot of overt racial prejudice, and other graphic scenes including prison rape. It’s not easy to watch, but I think it’s as realistic of a look at the effects of extreme racism as can be portrayed in a film. This is the story of all kinds of hate, and the same thing has always happened – the oppressors do everything they can to hurt the oppressed, until something happens to turn the tides and the oppressed become the new oppressors. It’s a destructive cycle that must be consciously stopped, and it will still take a long time to break. Obviously, it's also not the right movie for you if you sympathize with the ideals portrayed -- it's clear from the start that the main character has seen the error of his extremist ways, and seeks to right the wrongs and heal the damage as much as possible.
Between a great story, great cast, awesome production value, and a message that I think everyone needs to hear, this is a must see for anyone who can stomach the contents. Though it's hard to pick just one favorite out of Edward Norton's many roles, I'd have to say that this is one of my favorites. He really gets to show his impressive range of talents, and not many people could convincingly play both the hateful skinhead and the reformed penitent. Make sure you have an adults-only crowd, and be ready for a gritty drama that will put you right in the middle of the action from beginning to end.
Still yearning for more gritty drama? Try these heart-wrenching but wonderfully told stories
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