American History X is a movie at war with itself, and not just because of the very public dispute between New Line Cinema and British director Tony Kaye, who claims the studio re-edited his work into something unrecognizable.
The real battle is within the narrative itself. American History X is caught somewhere between a realistic examination of white supremacist skinhead culture, an exercise in stylized ultraviolence -- the obvious model is A Clockwork Orange -- and a tale of redemption, albeit one that comes with a high price tag.
Twisted nostalgia for an old social order and resentment-filled cries of white entitlement tumble out of the mouth of Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) with the violent clarity of a true believer. The charismatic disciple-soldier of the movement's philosopher-general (Stacy Keach), Derek looks at his neighborhood -- the seaside Los Angeles enclave of Venice -- as territory to be reclaimed from invasion forces.
Derek, who possesses not only immense personal power but a sharp intelligence, is viewed by his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) with a mixture of terror and awe. Their relationship -- which is the heart of the film -- shifts dramatically when Derek brutally murders two young black men who appear on the Vinyards' doorstep in the middle of the night.
Tony Kaye, who serves as the film's cinematographer-camera operator as well as director, stages these events with a searing immediacy -- the savage, beatific smile on Norton's face is chilling and unforgettable. Kaye's strength lies in the way he portrays physical and psychic violence. This doesn't always sit well with the moralistic nature of David McKenna's screenplay, which chronicles the rise, fall and rebirth of Derek Vinyard.
The flashback-filled storyline is triggered by a paper the high school principal (Avery Brooks) assigns Danny, who has adopted Derek's shaved head and politics, never imagining his brother would return from prison a radically changed man. Here's the biggest question mark of American History X: The film posits Derek's fervently racist outlook as an acquired aberration which can be unlearned. But Derek glimpses cracks in the facade of the Aryan brotherhood only when his prison comrades compromise their militancy for survival purposes. When his idealism is tainted, the belief system he so fervently embraced just crumbles. For all his intellectual prowess, strategic cunning and frightening leadership abilities, Derek turns out to be merely an acolyte who has lost his faith.
Despite all these internal conflicts, this is still an immensely powerful film filled with superb performances. Tony Kaye has captured a visceral emotional reality in American History X, which is all about the rage of thwarted desires and the tyranny of absolutes. Hopefully, it won't just end up preaching to the already converted.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].