By Owen Gleiberman
Updated November 06, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

At first, Edward Norton looks too mild to possess the inner ferocity of a great actor. With his angular frame and easy lopsided grin, he could be a friendly rookie shortstop, the sort of trustworthy dude anyone would want on their team. The closer you look, though, the more you’re drawn to something secret and wounded in his crinkled-up eyes, which seem subtly older than the rest of him. For all of Norton’s handsomeness, his features don’t quite add up (maybe that’s why Courtney Love likes him), and he’s a wizard at using his boyishness to disarm the audience — to lure us into thinking that the person we’re seeing is far more harmless than he appears. In the great Supreme Court finale of The People vs. Larry Flynt, his aw-shucks attorney seemed to be discovering the inner mysteries of the First Amendment as he went along (that was his wily way of convincing the court). Now, in American History X, Norton breaks loose and plays a vicious young Venice Beach thug, a racist skinhead with a mean-looking goatee, a thick black swastika tattooed over one bulging pec, and a gleam of murder in his eye. This is the sort of incendiary role a lot of actors would kill for, yet the shock of Norton’s performance isn’t its showboat flamboyance. It’s that he makes this sadistic junior sociopath rueful and intelligent — a tormented outcast brimming with poison, yet righteous, even complex, in his devotion to hatred.

American History X has a jumpy, propulsive, flashback-within-flashback structure that allows Norton to create his character in layers — to show us how Derek Vinyard, a middle-class refugee from a ”normal” American family, could end up with a Third Reich flag pinned to his bedroom wall. The pivotal event is the death, in a crackhouse blaze, of his casually bigoted fireman father. Desperate for someone to lash out at, Derek, a high school kid interviewed in tears on the nightly news, seizes on reactionary rhetoric, using ideological white rage as a shield — a firewall against his own vulnerability. The more damaged he feels, the thicker and harder the shield grows. (That’s the essential mentality of cults.) It’s when he’s arguing with his family around the dining-room table, spouting anti-affirmative action fire and brimstone that sounds disturbingly close to that of some of the more insidious right-wing pundits, that we can almost feel him snap, moving from rebellious anger into a kind of black-hole trance.

Derek is inducted into the neo-Nazi movement by a veteran hatemonger (Stacy Keach, oozing rot), who uses him as a neighborhood recruitment agent. Out on a rampage against blacks, Jews, and, of course, those evil minority supermarket workers (who get terrorized in one frighteningly intense scene), the disaffected rebel skinheads think they’re cleansing society, but they’re really purging themselves of fear — using rage like a drug. They’re seeking not justice but climax, and when Derek finally goes over the edge, confronting a black car thief outside his house, his act of violence is so shocking that I cried out right in the theater. The police arrive, and the look of scary, snarling triumph on Norton’s face is truly a triumph of acting.

American History X is riveting, yet it has a fair amount of pulp in its veins. The movie is organized around the relationship between Derek and his delinquent little brother, Danny (Edward Furlong, spooky but shallow), who has adopted the skinhead stance out of blind sibling worship. In an abysmal gimmick that frames the film, Danny is forced to write a high school paper about the events leading up to Derek’s incarceration (hence the investigative flashback structure), and you’re always aware that the passed-baton-of-hatred theme is a cheesy ”cautionary” device.

The director, Tony Kaye, a Britisher making his feature debut, works with flair and verve and control, but he can’t transcend the programmatic thinness of the script — the fact that Derek’s rehabilitation is meant to uplift us. Still, the film does succeed in making that transformation more plausible than you’d expect. In prison, Derek develops a grudging camaraderie with a black inmate (the scene-stealing Guy Torry) who works in the laundry room. At the same time, he begins to see all too convincingly that his fellow skinheads are actually deep-dish hypocrites. When the ultimate nature of their thuggery is revealed, he wants out, plain and simple. He doesn’t just give up hatred — he uses the evidence of his senses to deprogram himself. The restless fury of Norton’s mind leads Derek to hell and back again. At the end, though, you can’t help but think: If only every skinhead had this much under his cranium. B+

American History X

  • Movie
  • R
  • Tony Kaye