There's an old saying (with biblical links) concerning "the sins of the father," a phrase that, despite numerous different endings, basically relates to the premise that we are conditioned by what learn from our father figures, good and bad. We're exposed to their interests, and can even take on bits of their personality, based on their actions and reactions. This is why having a strong male influence is important in the development of a child, not only for a sense of security, but for the lessons that mothers cannot teach. Still, there are times when the wrong things are passed on. Violence, anger, indifference, apathy. If they're doing it, why can't we?
As such, the tagline for 'American History X' does its best to paraphrase the film, with the cryptic statement that "some legacies must die." While that's all well and good, this is one film that cannot possibly be summed up with any combination of four words.
Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton, in an Academy Award nominated role) is the poster-child for white supremacist gangs. Shaved head, swastika and iron cross tattoos, a mastery of rhetoric and propaganda, you name it. A son who lost his father, who has become a natural leader. But his hate lands him in prison for manslaughter after he catches a trio of black men trying to jack one of the cars he inherited from his dad.
In Derek's absence, his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong), who looked up to Danny after his father died, is following in the same dangerous footsteps, and is possibly heading for the same conclusion. Freshly released from prison, it's up to a reformed Derek to show his brother that hate is not the way to go through life, before it's too late.
'American History X' is not a film for the faint of heart. It's also not a film that panders to racist audiences of any kind. It's graphic, intense and brutal, and in the end, almost unforgiving, as it creates realistic characters who are the end result of their life experiences. There are constant swastikas on display, and very strong statements and actions by hate groups that will definitely turn off some audiences.
Those who can stick with 'X,' though, will get quite a history lesson. The film is beautifully crafted, alternating between the "present" time in color, and the past, told in black and white. In the present, we see a man repenting for his actions, having learned the error of his ways, suffering as his headstrong brother is doomed to repeat history. He has to juggle a family he lost, who were left to suffer, losing their home, who have him to blame for the path his brother took. Danny is always shown looking up to Derek, sometimes even literally, as his brother is truly his hero in life. In the past, though, we see a man possessed, a true embodiment of unbridled hatred, against those he has been conditioned against, as he creates the D.O.C. alongside white pride mouthpiece Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach). He becomes a figurehead for the hate group, and soon leads some violent assaults, before his rage leads him to murder.
Edward Norton is brilliant as Derek, as the character truly is multi-faceted, and one of the most daring roles in recent film memory. Imagine being forever known as the guy with the humongous swastika on your chest, who kills black guys, and attacks his own family...not much of a market for that in film if you get typecast. The hatred burning in his eyes, it's so believable, you can't help but be a bit intimidated by this monster of a man. The character genuinely believes what he preaches, and its the conviction behind it that can be truly scary. Not even the worst performance in Fairuza Balk's career can take away from the power that is Edward Norton when he's in top form.
Furlong is an interesting cat, as he doesn't quite have the range, talent, or convincing physical capabilities (you know, facial expressions) as Norton, but for playing the part of a high school student, we can't expect an extraordinarily deep kid. He's impressionable, and as such, should be more a representation of those he looks up to, like a blind follower, rather than a powerful speaker, so it's hard to fault his performance. From the very first scene, we know he's destined to be like his brother, as he emphasizes the color of the carjacker before he even mentions what the criminal is doing. Ethan Suplee, back when he was quite a mammoth of a man, is very convincing as a fellow white supremacist, Seth, who is more balls than brains, yet is capable of horrible things regardless, a stereotypical "I was just following orders" lackey if ever there was one. Avery Brooks is strong in his role of the black principal, Bob Sweeney, as the character's no-nonsense demeanor, yet strong, open, forgiving heart are all portrayed in a manner that you'd never expect in the public school system.
Few films are as infamous as 'American History X.' It literally brought one of the most vile forms of physical violence to the public eye, through the "curb stomp" scene that has literally been the "alright, film's over!" moment for many a viewer. But as soon as we reach the crux of violence, we soon get to the section of the film where all actions begin to have their most noticeable repercussions, where tables are turned, and redemption is not granted, but earned. This is a film that co-mingles themes of love and hate, tolerance and intolerance, and teaches powerful, important messages. If anyone were to leave this film with the "wrong impression" that it taught hatred and violence, then they truly didn't pay mind to the events unfolding before them. It may be polarizing, it may be a bit extreme for some, but for those who can handle adult themes, 'American History X' is among the best of the best in American cinema.
'American History X' was one of the first "bargain" catalog titles from New Line, which debuted with little to no fanfare, at a lower pricepoint than previous back titles had. Many of the other titles in this first wave felt thrown together, without the slightest bit of clean up or concern, but the fan favorite tale of redemption, and its VC-1 encode, was the highlight of the ten titles, for more reasons than the quality of the film.
The film has a split visual style, due to the use of both color and black and white, and each section of the film has its own strengths and weaknesses. In the black and white sequences, grain levels are very light, and never feel altered, while there isn't a soft shot to be found. Shadow detail is solid, while black levels are utterly perfect, super rich and inky. Facial features are off the charts, while even silly details like the stretchmarks on muscular shoulders pop. The dust stirred up in the laundry scenes literally flies through the room. There are no real visual flaws, not even aliasing in shots that contain tightly woven fences. Even if one of Derek's tattoos looks a bit too much like the result of a Sharpie marker, this section of the film looks amazing.
In color sequences, grain levels see a bump, that is a bit of a detriment to the film, as finer details often find themselves washed out. Facial features can still be off the charts, however there are more than a few blurry moments that rob us of the rich details. Skin tones are accurate, regardless of race, though black levels seem only average, not impressive like before. The picture is somewhat flat, and there is even some aliasing to be found, light as it is. We get nice close-up textures, particularly in clothing, but walls can be a mush.
In all sections of the film, there is only the tiniest bit of dirt, and the "extreme" closeups are quite incredible. There isn't a moment with compression artifacts or digital manipulation. A very strong transfer, very impressive for an older catalog title, that holds up to this day.
'American History X' is one of the old Warner/New Line titles that still had things a bit backwards. The autoplay doesn't quite help the situation on audio, as the disc defaults to the lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. A quick trip to the menu will give users the option of watching the film with the lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track, which still isn't a great option.
Dialogue is clear, with nice distinction and some volume differences (none so low as to require "rewinding" to try to hear the lines clearer), but it's almost all stuck in the front channels. The few lines that do come from the rear speakers feel awkward, like the marijuana lines in the parking lot meeting scene. Rear use is minimal, at best, as for the most part, the only element we hear behind us is the score, until the beach party, which is a mess, as the music becomes a blur of nondistinct noise, as do the ambience and random atmosphere. There are plenty of effects or lines that should have registered from channels that instead went silent, with the fronts doing most of the "heavy lifting."
Gunfire doesn't have a deep thump, or even any bass, but instead display a nice, light pop. Bass is hardly used in the film, save for the all-too infamous mouth meets sidewalk scene. Range seems limited, as there really are hardly any highs to be found here; at least there was never a need to change volume levels. In the end, it's a passable track, aged as it may already be.
'American History X' is a powerful and well made film that deserves more stars than our system can give. Time has only made the film better, and repeated viewings don't diminish the message, acting, or plot. It's in the top forty on IMDb's "Top 250" for a reason: people love this film. The Blu-ray release sports great video, ho-hum audio, and the same extras found on the DVD, which are nowhere near enough for a film of this caliber. Hopefully somewhere down the line we'll get an exhaustive two-disc release, possibly in a digibook, or some fancy Ultimate Collector's Edition (who knows what would be included as a trinket. Your own shiv or soap on a rope?). This is a film that deserves a commentary by the crew, cast, or a film historian, as well as some documentaries. One day, perhaps. Until then, it's highly recommended you buy this release.