Classic Movie Review: American History X (1998)

Posted: October 27, 2013 in Drama


Danny Vinyard (Edward Furlong) is a 16 year-old boy who idolizes his big brother, Derek Vinyard.(Edward Norton) Derek is a Neo-Nazi skinhead, under the tutelage of the leader of this local cell of bigots, Cameron Alexander. (Stacy Keach) Derek is serving three years in prison for the killing of a black man named Lawrence (Antonio David Lyons) who was trying to steal his car.  Danny’s principal, Dr. Bob Sweeney, (Avery Brooks) is afraid that Danny is headed down the same dark road as his big brother, Derek, so Sweeney asks Danny to write a paper on the circumstances of his brother’s conviction, and sentencing.  On the same night, Derek comes home from prison.  He is a changed man, and he wants to keep Danny away from the corrosive influence of Cameron Alexander.  Does he succeed?  What transformed Derek in prison?

This movie is another cautionary tale, but what sets this movie apart from other cautionary tales is the unflinching, reality of this story.  American History X is set against the backdrop of the Rodney King beating, acquittal and riots, and the racial animus in Los Angeles is palpable.  In 1992, everyone in America was talking about the King case, and some took the side of King and some took the side of the cops, and many of the conversations in America sounded like the conversations between Derek and his family, maybe with a lot less expletives, and a lot less racial epithets, but the contours of the conversation was the same.  Similarly, the transformation of Derek, from skinhead Neo-Nazi to concerned and loving brother works because it’s done gradually and is rooted in reality.  And the ending just re-enforces the reality of the story.

The acting is electric; there is no other word for it.  Edward Norton gives the performance of a lifetime, there are many scenes where Norton doesn’t say a word, he acts with his eyes. Norton’s eyes are seething with anger when he is an unrepentant skinhead,.  Norton’s eyes, after he comes out of prison, are clear and lucid, like he’s seeing the world with new eyes.  It is an amazing performance, no wonder he was nominated for an Oscar.  Ethan Suplee is downright scary as an early friend of Norton’s, he’s an exterminator, and he looks and sounds like he wants to exterminate someone.  It’s a far cry from his loveable little brother character on My Name Is Earl.  Avery Brooks is the voice of reason in this movie, trying to mentor both Danny and Derek, a wonderful performance by Brooks.  An unexpectedly good performance is given by Guy Torry, who adds some much needed humor to break the tension in a very tense movie.  Edward Furlong is the only so-so performance in a movie filled with stellar performances.  He plays the same annoying kid he played in Terminator 2.

The writing is amazing, so fraught with tension and danger, that I didn’t see one false moment in the whole movie.  The direction and cinematography is outstanding, the flashbacks are shot in black and white, and the black and white scenes are so distinctive and visually beautiful, that those scenes by themselves set this movie apart.

This is a violent movie, brutally violent, but it must be to be true to itself and its themes.  The language is abrasive, the F-bomb is tossed so much, the viewer gets numb to it. There is male and female nudity, so send the kids away, but for adults this is a must see,  one man’s harrowing journey of self-discovery.

American History X.  X-cellent.


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