Hate isn’t something we’re born with, unless you’re Damien from The Omen or you're fresh out of Rosemary’s womb. It is a feature of one’s personality distinctly inspired by others — the kids of the Westboro Baptist Church didn’t come into the world with the understanding that the right thing to do is to be homophobic and anti-Semitic.
American History X shines a light on the scarring truths of neo-Nazism in the United States. It opens with a distressing sequence detailing a carjacking gone wrong — would-be thieves make the mistake of targeting the home of Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton), a merciless neo-Nazi. Mostly black, they are murdered in methods ranging from vicious to grotesque. Derek is sent to prison for three years, his younger brother, the impressionable, teenaged Danny (Edward Furlong), imitating his hateful tactics as he ages.
The present of the film is set during the window of the first few weeks of Derek’s release. Danny has just written a paper praising Mein Kampf, and the skinhead movement is growing. But something in Derek has changed. Gone is the evil that nested in his eyes before; his body language suggests someone no longer compelled to always be in attack mode.
Flashbacks, photographed in grimy black and white, reveal his metamorphosis, and we unromantically witness everything from Derek’s sordid days as a sadistic “leader” to his eye-opening incarnation, where he forms such a strong bond with a black inmate that it causes him to rethink his hateful ways.
So the film is intent on acting as voyeur to Derek’s desperate attempts to inspire Danny to reconsider his life and beliefs and wonder aloud if continuing to perpetuate over-the-top prejudice is a path worth traveling down. American History X doesn’t paint Derek as a saint (we very graphically see the atrocities of his past), making the film gripping because it analyzes what a shallow thing hate is in a nuanced way.
Tony Kaye’s direction, unflinching and unbiased, presents the situation as is, letting the emotional undertones of the film hit us naturally, and, in some ways, guttingly. His instincts complement David McKenna’s screenplay with fluidity; McKenna, so easily able to go back and forth tonally (authentically characterizing a skinhead crime spree only to suddenly transition into Derek’s regretful present), gives the film its magnetically flawed interior. Kaye provides it with its instinctual exterior. We are never less than transfixed. It is even entertaining, despite its frequent dives into jerking uncomfortability.
The ensemble is just as monumental. Norton gives the performance of his career, embodying Derek with such commitment that to go from despising him to sympathizing with him does not feel like a cinematic manipulation; his portrayal is multifaceted in ways few actors can imitate. Though I wish more time was spent following Derek’s descent from all-American teenagerisms to neo-Nazi masochism, it doesn’t corrupt the power of Norton’s characterization.
Furlong is heartbreaking as Derek’s vulnerable younger brother who will do anything to be accepted; in a climactic dinner scene that shows the moment during which their father passes his bigoted baton to Derek, Furlong is only a background figure. But look at the way his eyes change, the way they see that hate equals acceptance, love. Furlong’s subtle facial idiosyncrasies and unconfident body language gives Danny a dimension that suggests that his hate is a result of social pressure, not of genuine disdain.
Even the supporting players, whose good work could be overlooked when behind the ground-shattering performances of Norton and Furlong, enrapture us. Beverly D’Angelo, the film’s source of hope, is heartfelt as a mother disgusted by the sins of her sons that still manages to radiate with unwavering love; conversely, Fairuza Balk, as Derek’s pre-prison girlfriend, disturbs with her inability to see past the fury that clouds her judgment.
Society will continue to contain pockets of narrow-minded individuals reactionary and caustic, but American History X analyzes the reality that racism and its fellow prejudices are something characterized by the culture that surrounds them — hate, in truth, has no foundation besides a bottomless crevasse where misanthropy immortally lives. American History X explores this with aplomb. A-