American History X

Reviewed By Chris Parry
Posted 09/21/02 05:50:11

"Quite simply one of the greatest films of our time. Unquestionably."
5 stars (Awesome)

The story of how American History X came to be released is almost as compelling as the film itself. Director Tony Kaye, a world renowned British director of TV commercials, was preparing for its release when he suddenly announced to the world that Ed Norton had reedited the film to give himself more screen time. The director also stated that he would refuse to be credited as the film’s director unless he was credited as ‘Humpty Dumpty’. When the distributor told him to ‘shuddupsitdown’, he sued them for $200m+ for not taking his name off the film, also suing the Directors Guild of America for refusing to take his side in the mess. New Line responded by taking the film out of the Toronto Film Festival and story has it that a meeting called between Kaye and the distributors just prior to the film’s release was thrown into chaos when Kaye brought with him a priest, a rabbi and a Buddhist monk. Still not making any headway with his case, Kaye took out full-page ads in the industry press complete with quotes by Abe Lincoln and John Lennon, as he threatened to hire protesters to picket cinemas if the film was released.

Whether the boycott worked or not is hard to say (it didn’t exactly light up the box office), but upon viewing the film you have to say it’s tough to make out exactly what Kaye’s problem was, as this is a masterpiece of modern cinema in every single respect. Ed Norton’s performance in the lead role, as a skinhead who begins to rethink his life after going to prison, is electrifying – and yes, I know how gay it is to use the world ‘electrifying’. Norton doesn’t chew the scenery, he devours it, becoming the character on the screen so completely and honestly that it’s really hard to believe this is the same wiry guy that defended Woody Harrelson in The People Versus Larry Flynt.

Backing up Norton’s powerhouse performance is Ed Furlong, as his impressionable kid brother, an unforgettable Beverly D’Angelo (seriously) as his ailing mom, Stacey Keach, Avery Brooks, Elliott Gould, Fairuza Balk, Ethan Suplee, the list just goes on and on.

Norton plays Derek, a young guy who lost his father when he was shot putting out a fire in a black neighborhood. Jumping on the white power bandwagon, he soon becomes a local leader of disenfranchised white youths, egged on by a local skinhead organizer. As his younger brother watches, Derek catches some black guys trying to steal his truck, shooting one and ‘curb stomping’ the other. The actual curb stomping is perhaps the ugliest thing I’ve seen on the big screen (and that includes Rosie O’Donnell), as it’s delivered with a brutality rarely seen in an R-rated film. But it’s an important part of the film that forces us to realize that, no matter how much we might have started to think this was a good guy with a few bad ideas, those bad ideas are poison. When Derek goes to prison he starts to change his way of thinking, beginning to realize that maybe he was fed a little BS by people with an agenda, but is it too late to save his kid brother?

Kaye’s direction in American History X goes far beyond mere storytelling; it’s just plain art. Packed full of powerful images that, even as stills, tell more story than 99% of what Hollywood puts out, this is a film that you just can not take your eyes off. Adorned in swastikas and carrying 30 pounds of muscle he put on just for the role, Norton has never, could never and never will be better in any other film. This is his opus, his white whale, his coup de grace. Anything from here on in is second best.

Trust me on this one, American History X just does not miss a step. Be it your grandmother, your mother, your father or your kids, every person you know should be told to see this film. They should show this film in grade school. They should make it part of every person’s growing up. It’s just that good.

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