To put it bluntly, American History X is one of the best and most powerful films ever released. It’s a message movie that, unlike most message movies, has a right to take itself seriously, and doesn’t once come across as pretentious. The message contained is an anti-racist one, which is told from the perspective reforming neo-nazi Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton), and his impressionable younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong), and follows Derek’s rise to skinhead hero, eventual fall and incarceration, and his post prison attempts to rebuild his and his family’s life and prevent his brother from going down the same path.
American History X is the title of a one-on-one class created for Danny (Furlong), by the principal Dr. Sweeney (Avery Brooks), after he turned in an assignment on Mein Kampf that argued for Hitler as a civil rights activist (which didn’t sit too well with his Jewish teacher or black principal). Danny’s first assignment for the new class is to write a new essay, about what happened to his brother Derek (Norton), and how those events have shaped his view of society; with the majority of the film forming a visual representation the essay, and Danny’s recollection of the events, and the other half/remainder containing the events of the day of Derek’s release and Danny writing his paper.
The film actually only takes place over a mere 24 hours, from the morning that Derek is released from prison to the following morning when Danny takes his essay into school, and so most of the film is shown through extremely vivid and detailed flashbacks; detailing Derek’s transformation from normal adolescent to the figurehead of the D.O.C (the most notorious white supremacist gang in Venice Beach) after the traumatic death of his father, the events that lead to his prison sentence, and troubled time whilst inside, and what eventually makes him decide to reform.
Every shot in the movie is superbly crafted, but it is during the flashback scenes that the artistic flair of first time director/cinematographer Tony Kaye really shines through; everything from the past is shown in beautiful black and white, with many exceptionally placed slow motion elements, alternate angles and close-ups. While the flashbacks are wonderfully shot, they are rather lengthy and form such a large part of the film they run the risk of turning it into a black and white film and spoiling its fast paced nature, thankfully neither rings true; as the transitions from colour to black and white and back are done so smoothly they could easily go unnoticed, and viewers have been known to say that they didn’t even realise entire sections were black and white.
This isn’t an action heavy film, but rather an emotionally driven story, although it does contain some of the most brutal and uneasy violence seen in a film of this nature, and it is made all the more poignant because of the rhetoric Derek uses and the actions he takes; when he leads a group of skinheads into trashing a store that employs illegal immigrants, or sadistically murders two black men on his own front garden, it all seems so real that it could be happening outside your house right now.
The rhetoric and actions of the characters, and specifically Derek, combine to create some of the most believable characters in any film, and the truly scary thing about American History X is that despite the fact that Norton’s character is literally brimming with pure evil (during the flashbacks), shown best by the ever-so proud smile and wink he gives whilst being arrested for murdering two black men, it is still so easy to believe in him. When he speaks about illegal immigrants, job stealing, drug use and the problems raised by so called equality, everything he says has such a strong element of truth that it is easy to see how real people get drawn in to these gangs and end up committing some of the heinous hate crimes that they do. Yet for all Derek’s wrongdoings there is only one scene where it’s possible to turn on him (at an uneasy family discussion about race and Rodney King that turns violent), as in all others he doesn’t do anything wrong; he beats people up, but they’re all “border jumpers” so shouldn’t be there anyway, he bans all black people from the public basketball court, but only by winning a game of basketball against the cheating black players, and yet when he finally reforms (after some realizations and tough times in prison) he remains just as compelling; it’s easy to feel happy for him, yet sad at the same time and immensely proud that he finally has the guts to fix his life.
Danny is just as believable a character as Derek, and while not quite as compelling, that is because of his character, and not the acting of Edward Furlong, who actually did a brilliant job of creating a true to life confused youngster that illustrates just how impressionable teenagers can be and how easy it would be for them to go the wrong way. This is one of only two noteworthy performances by Furlong (the other being Terminator 2), yet arguably his best, and one that showed the true potential he once had.
Other performances come from Beverly D’Angelo, as the boys mother (a solid and convincing, yet not spectacular performance), Elliott Gould as Danny’s Jewish history teacher and his mother’s ex-boyfriend (solid showing as the uneasy and scared teacher/partner), and Avery Brooks as Dr. Sweeney, the principal at Danny’s school and Derek’s old teacher and mentor (near faultless performance of the teacher that’s eager to help; he’s a believable mentor and convincing as someone that does outreach work with gangs, a far cry from his role as Captain Sisko in Deep Space Nine). Two other notable showings are Stacy Keach as Cameron Alexander, the mastermind behind the white supremacist gangs (good acting, but not astounding or dissimilar from that of his role as the warden in Prison Break), and Ethan Suplee (Randy from My Name Is Earl), as the true extremist and full believer of the white power rhetoric (he plays this part immensely well, and will make any My Name Is Earl fan watch the show in a completely new light).
To round off, American History X is, despite its limited financial success, one of the most powerful films around. It’s possibly the only message film around that’s actually moving enough to change opinions, and if you’re not into messages there’s no need to worry because it’s a film that has something for everyone; there’s an emotionally rich and detailed story, a good deal of action, nazis, an extremely important prison element and all rounded off with a brutal and shocking conclusion that will astound almost any viewer.
When first watching American History X on Blu-ray it’s clear that there is a large amount of grain present, although that’s largely because of the way the film was shot, being a stylistic choice, and not simply a bad transfer. If anything the 1080p upgrade is a surprisingly good transfer, being much clearer than the standard definition release and whilst there are noticeable parts of the picture containing blurred edges, and fine details that are less than perfect when compared to more recent hi-def blockbusters, blacks are much deeper and richer than previous releases and the contrast will not disappoint; a clear step up from the last release.
Sound on this edition has also been upgraded, to a 5.1 Dolby True HD track which, whilst making relatively light use of the rear channels, and containing large sections of relative silence, is extremely clear. There are one or two minor issues however, such as the odd voice or sound effect coming from the wrong speaker, or jumping speakers with little transition or reason, however it’s an easy thing to miss, doesn’t occur too often, and probably won’t put even a single viewer off, especially when there is such an immersive and gripping story to contend with.
The extras have to be the only disappointing thing about this Blu-ray release, as there are no new features compared to the feature-lite standard definition release. The only feature available is a short collection of short deleted scenes, none of which are terribly interesting or long, and would have added little to the story if included in the final cut. A making of documentary, or preferably an alternate cut, would have been much appreciated, but both remain extremely unlikely to ever be released as Tony Kaye remains adamant that his film was “raped” by New Line and Edward Norton’s editing, and wishes to have nothing further to do with it or them. The packaging is also less than brilliant, as while the front cover may be on a par with the standard definition release, the back is much more colourful than the last release and presents a much happier tone than this modern tragedy warrants.
The Bottom Line:
Tony Kaye may have hated it, there’s lacklustre packaging, hardly any extras and picture and sound quality that are a ways below reference quality, however, this is one film that everyone should own; the story is so powerful it truly has to be seen to be believed, it will give every viewer a unique experience depending on their preconceived level of prejudice, and will convey a whole range of emotions including anger, pride, joy and above all, sadness; the mark of a true tragedy. Picture and sound are below reference quality, but are still miles ahead of the standard definition release, the cinematography and acting are truly brilliant, and the exciting and moving story more than makes up for any faults with this disc. American History X is a worthy addition to any collection, that more than warrants the extra £6 for the Blu-ray; but even if you’re feeling cheap, £5 for the SD release is a bargain that’s too good to pass up.