Racist wackos don’t come any scarier than Edward Norton’s blistering performance as Derek Vineyard in Tony Kaye’s 1998 drama American History X. Forget Russell Crowe in Romper Stomper or Stephen Graham in This is England, movie skinhead neo-Nazi thugs all bow to the superiority of Norton’s bulked up, wild-eyed, tattooed and terrifying Derek Vinyard.
The film is a beautiful but harrowing mix of style and substance with some of Kaye’s visuals coming across a tad over-stylised. Black and white is used for grim flashbacks while the slow motion and choral and orchestral soundtrack are perhaps slightly over used but never detract from the central performance from Norton. The visuals can be awe-inspiring, Norton’s unrecognisable physique all brawn and swastika-covered bulk. When director Tony Kaye hits the slow-mo, it’s impossible to take your eyes off the brutal thug even as he commits the most heinous of racially motivated violence.
The narrative is non-linear with regular flashbacks to Derek’s racist past being cut into the present day story of Derek’s return to his ruined family after a stint in prison for his inexcusable actions. Derek’s little brother Danny (Edward Furlong in a rare but brilliant post-Terminator 2 role) narrates the story as he struggles to write a paper on his brother after being forced to re-write the assignment because his first draft was on Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
We see Derek as a brutal but articulate and charismatic thug, rallying his troops, committing unspeakable brutality and slowly but surely corrupting the minds of his foolish followers and more worryingly, the impressionable young Danny. The film even dares to show the joy of being in a gang; the triumph of a team of white basketball players against their black rivals is filmed, scored and edited to show the lure of the racist culture to a young, scared white kid.
But in the later scenes, the audience gets to see why Derek has had a change of heart whilst in prison. His desire to set Danny on the right path is fully justified by what he has experienced. And if you think that nothing could make you sympathise with such a vicious, heartless thug, think again. Despite Derek’s disgusting behaviour that leads to his incarceration, you will feel for this guy by the time his old school principal (Avery Brooks) pays him a visit in the prison infirmary.
It is interesting to note that director Tony Kaye (mad as a bag of spanners by the way) tried to have his name removed from the project after Norton is said to have re-edited the film giving himself more screen time. Kaye wanted his credit to be Humpty Dumpty, but broke a Director’s Guild of America rule that would allow him to use the pseudonym. Despite these disputes, the film is a brutal, thought-provoking near-masterpiece. Norton gained 30 pounds of muscle to play Derek and his transformation from skinhead psycho to sensitive family man is handled with dexterity. If I was him, I’d have given myself more screen time too with a performance this visceral.
It is a film about hate and about the roots and causes of hate. It is about redemption and reversing wrongs. Like so many other films about hate and revenge, there is a cyclical theme to the violence and the hate. Danny notes near the end of the film that ‘hate is baggage’ and the film carries this baggage through to the tragic and painfully inevitable end. It is a bold conclusion, sure to be mis-read by a minority of the audience of this type of film. But to those with half a brain, it is a bitter lesson in the never-ending cycle of violence that spirals out of endless hatred.