American History X

I was anxious to see “American History X,” and that was even before the controversy over director Tony Kaye’s dismissal from the film during the editing process. I have seen several outstanding movies dealing with skinheads and white supremacists, so I was anxious to see if these film makers could bring anything new to the forum. Even though my friends and family liked “American History X,” I personally found the film lacking.


Perhaps I’m too jaded, or perhaps I have seen more than my fair share of this material, but for some reason I felt that “American History X” was listless. It was the same old story, and not even its decent performances are enough to make it more than it is.
american history x
The film starts off with a shocking event that sets the tone for the rest of the film. When skinhead Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton, in an Oscar-nominated performance) wakes up in the middle of the night to find three black men trying to steal his car, he ends up killing two of them (one rather viciously). Sent to prison, Vinyard uses his incarceration to open his eyes and goes through a change of heart. Now he just wants to get along with everyone, and hopes his message will be welcomed by his family.
Unfortunately, Derek’s younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) has taken his place in the gang. Now Derek has to convince his brother that he’s on the road to hell if he stays with the gang, a plea that is ignored until its too late for Danny.
Writer David McKenna sets up the usual conflicts for Derek, including a family that has been beaten into submission by his former lifestyle, a girlfriend who can’t tolerate his new lifestyle, and a gang leader who refuses to let go of Derek’s past. They’re all played out in typical fashion, with just the right amount of hysterics and melodrama.
The cast approaches the material with conviction, yet that’s not enough to raise the material above the ordinary. There is one harrowing scene that shows what the film might have been: Derek attacks his mother’s dinner guests because he’s Jewish. The attack is severe, and it’s to the credit of Norton, Beverly D’Angelo (as mom) and Elliott Gould as her boyfriend that this sene reaches the level that it does. They make you feel uncomfortable, and that is what is missing from the rest of the film. Norton is good as Derek, who goes from being scary to likeable with ease. He’s also pretty buff, as a prison shower rape scene attests. Furlong is also good as Danny, but it’s a role that Furlong has played many times before: the confused teenager looking for acceptance.
Stacy Keach does just fine as the gang leader who keeps his hands clean by having his followers do his dirty work, while Fairuza Balk manages to capture the look of a chick who hides her ordinary look behind a mask of hate.
Director Kaye complained when his cut of the film was passed over for Norton’s personally supervised cut of the film. Kaye created a media circus over the incident, and after viewing the film, he should have just went on to his next project.

American History X” isn’t a good enough film to nail yourself to a cross over. Technically, the film looks and sounds great, with a haunting score by Anne Dudley and exemplary production values. Too bad the film’s script didn’t rise to the same level.

COMPLETE CHECK-UP

VISION: [ X ] 20/20 [ ] Good [ ] Cataracts [ ] Blind

It’s ironic that a film that lacks vision looks as good as it does on DVD. The excellent widescreen transfer, in the films original 1.85:1 ratio, delivers the best picture possible, with sharp, vivid images and outstanding color saturation that never bleeds or fades. The blacks are industrial strength, while the flesh tones are extremely complimentary. Attention to detail is strong, with good depth of field. I didn’t notice any compression artifacts. Instead, the pristine original negative allows for a clean and scrip image transfer.

HEARING: [ X ] Excellent [ ] Minor Hearing Loss [ ] Needs Hearing Aid [ ] Deaf

Again, the 5.1 Dolby Digital Soundtrack (also available in a slimmed down Stereo Surround track) is excellent. Powerful basses, crisp, clean high ends, and incredible ambient noise put you right in the middle of the action. Strong, powerful dialogue mix keeps everything on the up and up, while the left-to-front stereo split is exact. So is the spatial separation from front to rear. No noticeable hiss or distortion.

ORAL: [ ] Excellent [ X ] Good [ ] Poor

Closed captions in English for the hard of hearing.

COORDINATION: [ ] Excellent [ X ] Good [ ] Clumsy [ ] Weak

Due to the controversy between director Tony Kaye and the studio, I thought that DVD would have been an appropriate place to air both sides of the issue. I mean, wouldn’t it have been fair (and indeed interesting) to release the DVD with both versions of the film. That way, we the public could decide who made a better film. The DVD does feature three deleted scenes that in my opnion are much stronger than the entire film. One features a black homeless woman being attacked by two skinhead surfers, who demean her and trash her shopping cart full of belongings. This scene alone, and the woman’s reaction to her plight (and the fact that no one came to her rescue) says so much more than the film as a whole. There’s also real emotional content in the second scene, which features Cameron (Keach) and one of his goons discussing business at a beach fast food stand when a black man and a white woman enter together. There’s real menace in this scene, and a great payoff that should have been in the film. Finally, the third deleted scene features Derek (Norton) playfully interacting with a small black girl in a coffee shop. Even though he has changed his ways, you can still see some resistance in his delivery. The DVD also features the original theatrical trailer, handsome main and scene access menus (they’re static, no animation), and cast & crew bio and filmographies.

PROGNOSIS: [ ] Excellent [ X ] Fit [ ] Will Live [ ] Resuscitate [ ] Terminal

I wasn’t a big fan of the film, but everyone I know was, so you take it from there.

VITALS: $24.95/Rated R/119 Minutes/Color/33 Chapter Stops/Snapcase/#N4739

ATTENDING RESIDENT: John Larsen

PATIENT: AMERICAN HISTORY X

BIRTH DATE: 1998

HMO: New Line Home Video



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