Although the film saw a very small release in the United States (barely over 500 theaters), the film eventually would go on to gross every bit of it’d budget back worldwide. A satisfactory result, no doubt, for a film that was surrounded by so much turmoil between its lead actor and director. While it eventually lead to neither of the two discussing this film much in the public light, those who were able to witness it were none the less blown away by the intensity and strength of the film. While it has yet to receive any kind of special edition treatment (and likely never will due to the aforementioned scuffle), the film saw a Blu-ray release in April, allowing fans to see and hear the brilliant film in high-definition for the first time.
Derek Vinyard is dangerous, a coiled fury of hate who leads a neo-Nazi gang. But time and events start to change him. He reassesses his ways while doing time for manslaughter and emerges from prison eager to keep his younger brother (Edward Furlong) from falling victim to the thug cycle of violence and payback. It may be too late. Weaving in and out of events past and present in Derek’s life, American History X is revealing in its look at white-supremacist gangs and impassioned in its message that hatred and bigotry can be unlearned. Edward Norton (Fight Club, Pride and Glory) portrays Derek, giving a powerful, persuasive, Oscar®-nominated performance.
I’d heard a little about this film previously, but never enough to really get me interested in making the effort to see it. Popping this disc in years after the recommendations for it came through; I was really just blown away by the quality of this film. It’s one of those films that hit every one of its marks, never feeling like something was “off” (although there is one thing in retrospect, which I’ll comment on in a bit) and really feels as if it should have been nominated for more than it was. Norton’s performance here is nothing short of exemplarily, shifting in and out of a character we simultaneously love, hate, and feel sorry for. Edward Furlong does a brilliant job as the troubled youth as well, always showing a bit of innocence that leads you to believe that he isn’t as far gone as his brother once was.
And, really, everyone of the cast here was amazing. From the incidentals to the major, there wasn’t a weak performance in the bunch, with the shocking and sometimes hard-to-watch story of the film being carried along with every one of the characters. It’s disturbing how, once you cut out the extremism of the neo-Nazi’s actions, their points make some sense. Which is what I think is so fantastic about this film—as “evil” as the gang is portrayed in the film, their cause isn’t without some feeling—it’s not mindless violence they inflict, but rather violence with a purpose. Not that I’m condoning or even remotely agreeing with their actions, but it’s the sign of a great film when even the evils of society can be painted in such a way that they might almost be agreeable.
But the film doesn’t merely make it its job to shock you or offend with its copious amounts of racism and violent imagery. From the start there’s an undercurrent of trying to reverse the teachings that the film preaches and by way of a reformed Derek after a stint in prison, we get that change. Derek turns against those that he grew up with in the neo-Nazi gang and eventually is able to return his brother back to his family. There’s no “happily ever after,” however, but the way the film is constructed…there really just couldn’t be one. I will say that the ending definitely threw me though…and it is really the only thing I take issue with out of the entire film.
And this is where my comment about something “off” comes in. I don’t mind the little twist of an ending; you fully expect something horrible to happen at the end, whether it’s the way it’s directed or the way the music kicks in, but the resulting death is not the one you imagine. Again, that’s not the issue I have with the film, but rather the reaction of Norton’s character. Although grieved and supposedly in pain, Norton’s facial expressions and acting during the scene borders on almost unbelievable. And in those ten to fifteen seconds, the film gave me it’s only “meh” moment—not because of the scenes construction, but because of how it was acted.
But that little bit is not enough to take away from the overall brilliance of the film. It’s rare that I find myself so wrapped up in a film and while the frequent outbursts of rage, racism and violence may just be cheap tricks to get the film attention, I really was just as amazed by the other “teachings” of the film. The wrap up and how the racial seeds got planted in Derek’s head to begin with was a great little bit of storytelling and really tied the whole story up into a neat little bow, to see how it began and how it ended. Not linear in the least, what with the frequent back and forth trips from past to present, but overall American History X is a solid film through and through.
Overall if you haven’t seen this film yet, then definitely make an effort to do so. It’s a fantastic film and despite being nominated back in the day, you don’t hear much about it nowadays, making it a bit of a “sleeper” in some ways. Highly Recommended.
American History X arrives in a standard Elite Blu-ray case without a slipcover and a lone firmware upgrade notice insert. Menus are nearly non-existent (as are the extras), but the VC-1 encoded transfer does look pretty damn good. There is some softness to the picture (it is over a decade old, after all), but for the most part the detail is high and the black and white segments especially look fantastic. The included Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track is a solid mix, with decent surround usage, especially in the prison sequences, but other than that the surrounds are mostly silent aside from some loud music here and there.
Extras include a small batch of Deleted Scenes (6:54, SD) and the Theatrical Trailer. And…that’s it. With the aforementioned falling out between Norton and the director of the film, I doubt if we’ll ever see anything more for this film…which really is a shame. Still, the release is worth picking up just for the film, as it looks great. Recommended.
American History X is now available on Blu-ray.