“The Most Profound Fall of All,” A Film by H. Dumpty

American History X (1998)     3.5/5

Directed by Tony Kaye (New Line Cinema)


The continuous, positive response to American History X by audiences is a wonderful thing. Rarely is a modern film this provocative, clearly displaying that a hefty number of Americans still seek thoughtful entertainment. On Empire‘s list of the 500 greatest movies of all time, the 1998 film by Tony Kaye clocks in at #311. Shockingly enough, Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, a film that defined the editing technique of montage (and surely belongs in at least the top 50), is two notches below American History X, while two numbers above is Michael Bay’s Transformers, which while possibly being Bay’s best flick, is in a completely different ballpark. Weird. While that may be going off on a tangent, the fact remains that no matter how powerful Kaye’s film may be, the result is far from perfect.

Kaye, having not been allowed by New Line to release the cut he wanted, attempted to have his name removed from the movie, first attempting the common pseudonym for directors who disown their films, Alan Smithee, and when that didn’t work out, appealed to use the name Humpty Dumpty instead. It is no secret that Kaye is perceived by the film community as an eccentric whacko; in fact, he has only directed three films since (including this year’s Detachment, starring Adrien Brody). Enter Edward Norton, who helped edit the final cut of the film (and who in recent years, has been notorious for rewriting scenes of the movies he stars in), also giving an astonishing performance in the lead role. Given his domination onscreen, Norton even lends the impression that the heart of this film beats within his own chest.

He plays Derek, a white supremacist recently released from prison, who attempts to keep his high school-age brother, Danny (Edward Furlong), from following down the same path. The result of Derek’s extreme racism was the shooting of his firefighter father, supposedly by African-American drug dealers. But American History X is most successful when it asks deeper questions about the roots of such prejudice. In a flashback scene (all of which are portrayed in black-and-white), we see a discussion at the family dinner table, where Derek’s father presents a seemingly logical argument as to why he believes other races are impeding on the prosperity of others. At this point, the family has yet to descend into neo-Nazism, but there is surely an undercurrent of racism. The breaking point comes when the father is murdered, and Derek begins to apply all the anger within his soul to those who are not white Protestant. His transformation from comically long-haired teen to vicious skinhead seems slightly exaggerated, although the film supplies a motive in possibly the best way it can.

This is arguably the notion audiences are most receptive to in American History X; it allows us to re-evaluate our own beliefs and prejudices. Yet the film doesn’t really hit its stride until the extended midsection, in which we chart Derek’s reformation. This section is an obvious showcase for Norton’s performance ability, and if I were him, I would have certainly cut out little footage from this segment. In prison, Derek gradually comes to realize the irrelevance of his beliefs, a main catalyst being an act of horrifying, sexual violence. Other scenes of terrifying brutality, all superbly shot and edited, include the murder sequence that tossed Derek into prison, in addition to a riot scene which remains one of the most chilling displays of hate I have ever seen onscreen.

So at the end of the day, why is the film sort of a mess? Kaye has a hard time with tone; much of American History X feels as though it were made by a pretentious film student. The cinematography, also by Kaye, is scattershot, working well during the quick-cut sequences, but suffering during slower-paced scenes. Kaye loves low angles, and when there are several characters in the room, he tends to place the camera at quite interesting focal points. But a lot of what Kaye does with the camera is simply unnecessary. In medium shots, he tends to use Yasujiro Ozu’s take of having actors look almost directly into the lens, which seems deprived of any purpose. Realism would be far more applicable. He also intends to overindulge on close-ups, as he does with most of the film’s technical aspects.

The best film I have ever seen about race is Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. The greatness of that picture comes in its ability to present two different points-of-view, and allow us to empathize with both. While the message of American History X is rather singular, it is successful with presenting alternative perspectives, many of which are quite thoughtful and realistic. What it lacks, however, is the true, moral ambiguity that would have made the film a classic. While the film may include provoking, moral conflict, Kaye’s cinematic skills often work against him. When you have a film of power, especially one that advocates a particular message, you have to be careful about the overuse of style.

The black-and-white flashbacks are indeed, quite nifty, but scenes such an epic basketball game (blacks vs. whites, of course), set to an operatic score, just don’t work. The expectation is that when realism is substituted for style, there must be an ironic subtext to allow such techniques to justify the message. Instead, Kaye uses techniques such as slow-motion and outrageous compositions while still telling his story with a completely straight face. There are moments of dark humor, but they are often awkward and uncertainly presented. There is no sense of satire, and while that is not necessary for a film like American History X, the way it presents itself requires something that it is severely lacking. While the film makes quite an impact, it somewhat fails with the realistic nature of what it hopes to convey, diminishing what audiences can take away from it.

Like the cinematography, the script by David McKenna is also a mixed bag; I wonder what portions remain in the final cut. Some dialogue is simply poor, stagnant, and predictable, but on other occasions, Norton or Furlong will have a monologue that will truly knock your socks off. In terms of acting, the film is near flawless, Norton earning a well-deserved Oscar nomination as an angry man who becomes tired of hate. The young Furlong, who starred alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, consistently holds his own with an exceptional actor, one whose presence never ceases to command whatever action is occurring onscreen.

I won’t completely spoil the resolution of American History X, but I will say this – nice try. There is a recurrent foreshadowing of what is bound to occur in the film’s final scene, although it is not likely to be predicted, especially after McKenna throws in a late, narrative twist to dissuade us. This is a movie that will certainly stick with you, but what the filmmakers do in their final minutes is out of context, despite the elements of Shakespearean tragedy it alludes to. This ending completely ignores the moral conflict suddenly imposed upon Derek (which is even stronger than it has been at any prior point), although his guilt and devastation are conveyed exceptionally. Luckily, Norton is a good enough actor to make these moments honest, moving, and unforgettable.

A lot of what occurs in American History X is graphically depicted, but no matter how necessary this may be, the film never finds a completely satisfying, cohesive way to string together these events of an ambitious narrative. However, the meaning, emotion, and power certainly comes across in a way few films have the courage to portray. The opening credits of the film overlay a beach, captured in black-and-white, while immersed in silence. We immediately sense something wrong with this image. A beach is supposed to be colorful, overlaid with peaceful sounds. What we are instead given is a representation of hate. It is not until the film’s conclusion that the beach becomes the one that lingers within the joyful memories we all share, that of color and life; one free of the anger and hate that Danny refers to as “baggage.” From a technical standpoint, American History X may resemble a broken Humpty Dumpty, a film made by talented people who never quite jived together. But for what impact it has on any given person, this is a full egg, begging you to knock it over. Because once you do, it will likely stand up, put itself back together, and kick you square in the ass.