The spirit of the late Sam Fuller, fondly remembered for his in-your-face melodramas on hot-button issues, is alive and well in this new film from director Tony Kaye.
Kaye's tale of Nazi skinhead brothers in California employs Fuller's favorite methods of personalizing the political in lurid close-up, commingling as it does graphic violence, gaseous rhetoric, the hottest racial issues of the day, and a sincerely meant story of personal redemption all in one ungainly package.
Screenwriter David McKenna conceived and wrote this filmic parable, which intercuts the family reunion of charismatic Nazi Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) and kid brother Danny (Edward Furlong) with their memories of the events that led to Derek's jailing. Rock video maker Kaye directed and photographed McKenna's script, and American History X looks at times like a punk rock Nuremberg rally -- but that's appropriate for the subject matter.
Impatient producers, however, took final editing of this project away from Kaye. According to news reports Norton himself was intimately involved with the final cut. It's thus difficult to know who's to blame for the occasional ragged edit or narrative gap. It's unclear for the longest time, for example, why there's a young blond woman hanging around the Vinyard household. (She turns out to be the boys' sister, Star Trek: Voyager refugee Jennifer Lien.) Several characters undergo sudden changes of heart whose awkwardness may be due to missing connective material, or may date back to tabloid simplicities in McKenna's script.
More importantly -- and this may be Kaye's misjudgment or an actor's vanity -- the pumped-up, shaven-headed, swastika-daubed Norton registers as dangerously magnetic for much of the picture. A basketball game in which he rallies whites to beat "invading" blacks is filmed and cut to emphasize Derek in his moment of triumph -- it's like a scene from Rocky. Kaye certainly shot the material, but he may have intended this Nazi rally to be less encouraging of Norton's charismatic hold on the viewer. Or not -- it's Derek's worshipful kid brother's memory we're seeing, after all. Either way, just a few small changes in cutting could have made a big difference in how the skinhead victory works on the viewer.
Ultimately, though, we can only judge what's on the screen, and much of this audacious picture is quite impressive for its sheer nerve. Not since a black inmate of an insane asylum donned a sheet and started his own Klan rally in Fuller's 1963 Shock Corridor have there been scenes with the lunatic racial intensity of Derek's brutal destruction of a gang of car-jackers, a Nazi commando raid against an "immigrant"-staffed supermarket, or the gang rape that permanently readjusts one character's attitude.
The script mixes racist rhetoric with passages from Gov. Pete Wilson's speeches against affirmative action in a preachy, if effective, gambit. Danny's African-American school principal (Avery Brooks) is determined to save the boy from his brother's racism. Brooks' bald head visually rhymes with the shaved heads of the Nazis, while his wonderfully solemn bombast is familiar to fans of his space-faring Cmdr. Sisko on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. His role in retraining Danny suggests nothing so much as Paul Winfield's attempt to retrain a racist attack dog in Fuller's last great film, White Dog (1982). A scarred Stacy Keach is less effective as the local Nazi boss. (This being tabloid cinema, Keach's character is not only racist but a "chicken hawk.")
Despite its more lurid passages, American History X is a good film, especially if you accept that shouting is a better way of getting people's attention on urgent issues than the calm mumblings of liberal symposia. In fact, all the liberals in this film -- Jennifer Lien, or Elliott Gould's schoolteacher -- can manage to do is act stunned in the face of Norton's rhetoric. (The aging Gould looks like a melting candle.)
Norton's a firecracker, but one with a pretty wide range. He's particularly good in the prison scenes late in the film, in which he gets to show emotions besides hate and triumph. There's a deep sadness to this movie's last half-hour. Audiences are likely to exit the theater subdued -- and even thoughtful.