“Bite the kerb.”
It’s arguably the most horrible moment of screen violence ever. A black car-jacker is shot and wounded by Edward Norton’s muscular neo-Nazi, Darren, dragged to the side of the ward and forced, with the horrific scrape of teeth on concrete, to open his mouth around the kerb. A cutaway shot to Darren’s brother ensures the stamp which shatters the teeth, jaw and face of the black youth is never actually seen. Still, it remains horribly visceral and provokes a physical reaction: it’s impossible not to gasp, wince or worse.
Ask anyone who’s seen American History X what they remember of it, and that scene is the one they will recall. But, as jarringly excellent as that scene is, does the movie warrant another look almost fifteen years after its initial release?
The storyline is slight yet powerful: Danny (Edward Norton) is a high-school kid in awe of his older brother, Danny (Norton). He’s the hate-mongering figurehead of a brutally racist group who is jailed for the manslaughter of two black youths in the attack outlined above. During his brother’s incarceration, Danny is embraced by the group and, emboldened by their support, submits a term-paper on Mein Kampf. Thankfully Derek’s spell behind bars has quelled his racists urges and, determined to turn his back on his past, he encourages Danny to abandon the group – but can either of them truly escape their pasts?
It’s a narrative which is, quite frankly, difficult to swallow. The majority of the characters are sketchily drawn and their motivations unclear – Derek’s volte-face is particularly unbelievable and the role of school principal Sweeney (Avery Brooks) is a clumsily written moral voice and hanging the plot on the writing of a journal-like school assignment is very lazy indeed. Luckily, the storytelling is considerably more skilful than the script-writing.
The central performances are magnificent. Whatever became of Edward Furlong, a young actor who seemed to have the world at his feet following Terminator 2 and his role here? He’s callow yet headstrong, believably vulnerable and manages to hold his own against a powerhouse of a performance from Edward Norton.
As Derek, Norton is simply magnificent. Although the latter half of the film sees him in a more familiar low-key guise, as a shaven-headed neo-Nazi, Norton is terrifying. Bare-chested and daubed in swastikas, he’s a hugely imposing figure. But his physique is only half the story – Darren’s fierce intellect add credibility to his racist outpourings and his eyes sparkle with evil intent. One moment in particular, as he grins evilly into the camera as the police arrest him, is malevolence personified.
The film is extremely stylishly made, too. Told in a non-linear fashion, flashbacks are presented in crystal clear black and white. It’s unusually artistic for such a brutal film, and some of the camera shots are breathtaking. Perhaps at times director Tony Kaye treads a little close to music-video territory in his use of slow-motion, but some of the lingering shots are beautifully composed. The black and white is also particularly apt for the occasional outbursts of starkly shot, matter-of-fact violence.
The reasons for Derek’s violence and hatred are hinted at and half-heartedly explored, although not particularly well. Although Derek’s fire-fighter father was killed by a black drug-dealer, the strongest hint at his mindset occurs during a mealtime conversation in which his dad reveals his own bigoted point-of-view. Expecting us to believe that a character as intelligent as Derek would adopt this lame attitude is a bridge too far.
That said, American History X remains a powerful and deeply unsettling movie which sets out to condemn racism and bigotry in all its forms – and does not shy away from revealing the bloody and ugly aftermath. The arresting imagery and set pieces which mark the journey towards the inevitable and tragic conclusion linger long in the memory and ensure that the movie continues to touch very raw nerves even today.