Currently moviegoers can either indulge in the Holocaust kitsch of Life Is Beautiful or take in a Stephen King lesson in Nazi venality in Apt Pupil. Both films are sensationally dumb, but at least neither is selling fascism, the unintended consequence of this week's movie about Nazis, American History X. The film begins with some headbanging sex and a gruesome execution, then cuts to a kid named Danny (Edward Furlong), parked in the principal's office for having turned in a paper celebrating his idol, Adolf Hitler. “I will not give up on this poor child yet,” intones the principal (Avery Brooks), rumbling over Danny's quailing teacher (Elliott Gould) with his magisterial vowels and setting up the film's theme of salvation. A neo-Nazi in training, Danny has patterned himself on his older brother, Derek (Edward Norton), a white-power skinhead who just that day has been released from prison after serving a term for murder. But while Danny has been keeping the faith, shaving his head and scowling at the homeboys down at Venice beach, Derek has undergone a radical transformation: Derek the Hater has become Derek the Reformer.
It sounds like one of those j.d. movies from the '50s, and it more or less tracks like one too – I Was a Teenage Skinhead, or My Brother, Mein Kampf. First-time
director Tony Kaye may be reaching for grand opera – a choir chimes in periodically on the soundtrack – but screenwriter David McKenna has set his sights distinctly lower, modeling the two Dereks on those favorite sons of orthodontic waiting rooms everywhere, Highlights' Goofus and Gallant. Derek's metamorphosis, which on the surface recalls the story of Thomas Leyden, a former racist skinhead now working with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, isn't just abrupt, it's ridiculous. Leyden, once a skinhead recruiter and Tom Metzger pal, took a couple of years to change his world. Four months before he's up for review, Derek gets brutalized by some white goons, buddies up with a wisecracking black guy (Guy Torry) and decides, gee, maybe Hitler had it wrong after all. As if on cue, Avery Brooks shows up like a jailhouse Jiminy Cricket, hops on Derek's shoulder and urges him onto the path of righteousness. It's a conversion that's meant to be good for the character, but turns out to be ruinous for the movie.
Redemption may be one of our favorite movie fictions, but only because of the good stuff that comes with it – the crunching bones, the spattered blood, the jolts and intimations of death that so many directors use to give their scenes a pulse. Predictably, once Derek gets scared straight, the film eases into neutral. Amends are made, hugs are shared and the family's past shifts into reverse – a ritual purgation whose only real value lies in the flashbacks of Derek terrorizing his family, Derek terrorizing Elliot Gould (the black men in the movie are either sinners or saints, while the only Jew is a tremulous pedagogue), Derek terrorizing just about anyone who crosses his path. And herein lies the essential problem of so many movies that consider hate and its effects not as a means to a story's end, but as the story itself: Violence is more cinematic than peace, or at least easier to put to film. It's also a remarkably effective way to grab not just the screen but public attention, as Ralph Fiennes discovered by becoming everyone's favorite SS pinup in Schindler's List.
Norton, who seems to have pumped himself to twice his normal size to play Derek the Hater, has been an actor to watch since he made his screen debut in Primal Fear, but he's never felt like a star. He still doesn't. Like Robert De Niro, Norton is most comfortable either termiting into a role, as he does here, or fading into the scenery, as he did in The People vs. Larry Flynt. In American History X there are moments when the actor holds the screen with the animal vigor of his performance – and they're all moments when he's either beating or killing someone; it's not for nothing that the movie poster features Derek the Hater with his shirt off, a hefty swastika tattooed over his heart. Later, when Derek the Reformer enters, Norton seems to shrivel back to character-actor size. He doesn't just look smaller, less brutal, built and sexy, he actually starts to look like an extra: He shrinks to fit the movie.
Like a lot of films, American History X looks better than it sounds – and much of the time McKenna's script sounds comically puerile. Kaye, who's worked in television advertising as a director, served as the film's cinematographer and camera operator both, and he's tricked it out with all sorts of visual chicanery – he's particularly fond of stretching the images with a wide-angle lens and of slowing his biggest
scenes down to a sensuous crawl. What Kaye doesn't understand is that all the flash tends to distract attention from his actors, who are working hard for him. More critically, he hasn't learned the absolute lesson in the ways of seeing: that the way you say something means as much, sometimes more, as what you actually say. Kaye, who's used to selling cars and cigarettes on British TV, shoots Derek the Hater as lovingly as he would a new Volkswagen. Derek is peddling malevolence, and Kaye can't see that he's helping to nail the sale.