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Sunday, July 20, 2014

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 18 - American History X (1998)

American History X (1998; New Line Cinema)
Director: Tony Kaye
Writer: David McKenna
Starring: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Ethan Suplee

Kaye and McKenna’s tragic tale of a reformed Neo-Nazi is one of those movies I’m kind of struggling to write about.  The basic plot of American HIstory X follows Darek Vinyard (Norton), a high-ranking member of a Skinhead gang in Los Angeles.  After going to prison for murder, he reforms and begins to change his ways, starting with the rejection of his former Nazi beliefs, but during his sentence, his brother had joined the gang and is now a full fledged member.  The bulk of the story is told in flashbacks to Darek’s growth as a Neo-Nazi from his father’s death to his early adulthood all the way up to his prison stint, and in present time where Darek struggles to separate himself from his lifelong friends while mixing in moments of time during his incarceration.  Meanwhile we get glimpses into his brother’s own downfall that reflect those in Darek’s life.  

American History X is a very, very rough sit.  It’s brutality reflects the evil in the beliefs of its characters.  They are bigoted, violent, and unapologetic.  Darek’s reformation begins to show us an outsider’s view of the reality that surrounds the character, but even with this, the movie is still unflinching in showing the lengths that some will go to to achieve their evil goals.

This film has a great narrative structure.  There are three timelines told parallel to each other, one showing us Darek after he has begun to reform leading up to the film’s powerful conclusion, one showing the events from the time Derek commits the crime that has him put away up to his release, and one showing Darek’s influences and growths from his teenage years up to the point where he commits the life-changing crime.  The nonlinear approach is what gives American History X its voice, giving it strength and showing us how and why he originally became what he did.  The film challenges you to actually empathize with this man, and then we see how one event changed him to a hate-fueled, violent gang member to his ultimate return to humanity.  It is a strong psychological study as well as an excellent story that is told with a fearless approach.  That said, if you plan to watch this film, be prepared because this movie does not hesitate to show us hate in all of its ugliest forms.

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