American History X

American History X (1998)
New Line Home Entertainment
Cast: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong
Extras: Theatrical Trailer, Deleted Scenes, Cast & Crew Biographies

Some films offer us a view of real life which makes us smile or chuckle to ourselves as we view ourselves in this reflection, and begin to contemplate the common threads in human existence. However, some films have the power to hold a mirror to the viewer’s soul and make them look far beyond their lives, and examine their own morals and belief systems. Tony Kaye’s "American History X" is such a film. "American History X" tells the story of Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton), a hate-filled skinhead from Venice Beach, California, who lives in a world of white supremacists. The film opens with Derek murdering two African-American men who were attempting to steal his truck. Quickly, the film then shifts its focus to Derek’s younger brother, Danny (Edward Furlong). Danny, who is essentially the narrator of the film, is following in his brother’s footsteps, by being drawn into this world of white supremacy. Through flashbacks (all of which are shot in glorious black-and-white), Danny tells us the story of what really happened the night of the murders and essays, how Derek grew from a well-adjusted teenager to a hate-monger. As we learn more about Derek, we begin to see what a monster he truly is. When Derek is finally released from prison, he must start a new life where he has to confront his own personal demons, and attempt to save Danny from becoming a victim of hate, just as he did."American History X" is one of the most powerful and thought-provoking films that I’ve seen in years. First-time director Tony Kaye (he won praise for Soul Asylum’s "Runaway Train" video) has crafted a beautiful motion picture, full of strong images and symbolism. Kaye’s use of black-and-white in the flashbacks gives the film a documentary feel and makes the images seem more lifelike. They are skillfully contrasted with the present-day scenes that feature a fairly broad color-scheme, ranging from the American flag (which can be found in the background of a remarkably number of shots), to a room painted pastel pink. Kaye also makes good use of slow-motion footage, and scenes with no dialogue to convey a heightened sense of emotion.

The story moves along at a brisk pace and the 2 hours literally seem to fly by. As the film moves towards its conclusion, Kaye cranks up the tension, but once again, not in the usual way. There aren’t any jump-cuts. The music doesn’t begin to build.
Simply through the characters gestures and behaviors, the message is conveyed to the viewer, that something is going to happen. Actually, upon my second viewing of the film, I knew what was going to happen and I was still on the edge of my seat! Surprisingly, Kaye felt that he lost control to New Line and went on record, saying that he didn’t like the final cut of the film. He asked that his credit be changed to "Humpty Dumpty", but New Line refused.

Besides a powerful story and excellent direction, "American History X" also boasts a great cast. It’s easy to see why Edward Norton was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in this film. His transformation from seemingly normal teenager to charismatic racist, is impressive enough, but the sense of hate that he is able to give with just a facial expression is even more awe-inspiring. On the surface, Edward Furlong seems to be playing his usual punk kid role, but he too brings a certain depth and humanity to the part of younger brother Danny. Stacy Keach is just downright eerie as the local white supremacist leader and Beverly D’Angelo gives us great moments as Derek and Danny’s mother. I find it surprising that Avery Brooks wasn’t nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Dr. Sweeney, a teacher who tries to rescue the siblings from their world of hatred.

As usual, this New Line DVD is above par, although it would have been great if New Line had been able to give this particular film their outstanding Platinum Edition treatment. The image is crisp and very clear, especially during the black-and-white scenes, where the very natural black tones add a necessary and conceivable depth to the picture. The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio in a clean and sharp transfer that is <$16x9,enhanced for 16x9> TV sets, with an accurate framing and no visible distortion at the edges. The picture quality is superb without <$chroma,chroma noise> or color bleeding, maintaining a high level of detail at all times. The transfer’s color balance is also very good, although a slight over-emphasis of red seems noticeable in a handful of scenes. Fleshtones are naturally rendered and no compression artifacts are evident anywhere on the disc.

"American History X" is a drama, driven mostly by dialogue, and as a result, the <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> sound mix is rarely very active, but absolutely adequate for this sort of film. Accompanied by a very good score by Anne Dudley, this DVD version preserves all the intricate details in the elaborate orchestration used for many of the film’s most impacting scenes. The film comes with English language tracks and selectable English subtitles. Sadly, no other languages are supported, which is probably the only bad thing that can be noted about this release.

The special features on this disc include the movie’s theatrical trailer, deleted scenes, and cast & crew bios. The trailer is actually very good and gives the viewer a sense of the power that the finished film holds. Two of the three deleted scenes are only of moderate interest and serve mostly character development, but the longest one is of vital importance, illustrating a key story-point that we were not allowed to see in the film, only hear about. It would have been nice to know why this particular scene was cut. I’m sorry that I’m not mentioning what the scene is, but I don’t want to give anything away. Although it didn’t do too well at the box-office, and Edward Norton was snubbed by the Oscars, "American History X" is definitely worth seeing. This explosive drama should restore your faith in competent filmmaking and this DVD release from New Line Home Video upholds the quality that they have become known for.