AMERICAN HISTORY X (Tony Kaye, 1998)

A lugubrious fable for what used to be known as the bubblegum set, American History X isn’t in the same league as such fraternal heartbreakers as Valerio Zurlini’s Family Diary (1962) and Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006). It’s a frantic, melodramatic soap opera, soft and sentimental in the extreme, beneath a patina of grit and social import.
     Highschooler Danny Vinyard (Edward Furlong, excellent, as usual) idolizes older brother Derek, a neo-Nazi skinhead newly released from prison for murdering two thieving Crips. Danny has followed Derek’s political model. (Their racist father, a firefighter, was killed by black gang members.) Ironically, this has the potential for bringing the brothers into conflict; in prison, Derek shed his fascist skin; now his mission is to disentangle Danny from the local white supremacist network.
     Who is chiefly responsible for the mess that is this film? Not Tony Kaye, the British-born Orthodox Jewish artist out of whose hands weight-throwing star Edward Norton snatched the material, overseeing the final cut. Kaye, rightly outraged, lost his bid to have his name removed from the credits; but what has survived of his work is nonetheless beautiful, including the film’s finest passage, in which the Vinyard boys, facing Danny’s bedroom wall, silently and simultaneously move to remove its articles of hate. Kaye is also responsible for the cinematography—in color, except for black-and-white flashbacks.
     David McKenna’s script has its high points and low. The principal culprit is, of course, arrogant Norton, whose flaky performance might have come off better had Kaye had his say about the movie’s final form.
     The worst performance, however, is the result of the most ill-conceived character: Bob Sweeney, the high school principal who won’t “give up” on Danny—not a breathing character but a mobile piece of rhetoric.
     The closing quotation is from Lincoln’s first inaugural address. Lincoln aimed these words at those who were contemplating secession: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. . . . The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

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