Play It Again – American History X

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By Jess Lomas
July 9, 2013 

Play It Again is a weekly feature in which our classic-film connoisseurs revisit a revered motion picture from the annals of movie history, to see if it holds up… or if it has aged terribly. And yes, it takes its name from a famously misquoted Casablanca line (hey, whatever; it fits!).

A film about neo-Nazis is not an easy one to enjoy, regardless of its technical proficiency and stellar performances. Yet there’s something about American History X that touches a nerve and resonates, despite its flaws.

Danny Vinyard (Edward Furlong) is tracking the same dangerous path as his older brother Derek (Edward Norton). After handing in a paper at school on Hitler’s manifesto Mein Kampf he is assigned a follow-up paper by history teacher Sweeney (Avery Brooks) called American History X, and told to write about his brother’s foray into a gang of white supremacist skinheads and the crime that landed him in jail. The assignment comes on the day Derek is released from jail a changed man; his encounters on the inside with fellow laundry worker Lamont (Guy Torry) forcing him to see the errors of his ways. Derek’s mission now that he is free is clear: remove himself from the gang and ensure Danny’s and his family’s safety.

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This being the debut of director Tony Kaye and screenwriter David McKenna, their naïveté shows at times. Experience came instead from editors Jerry Greenberg and Alan Heim, who had worked on such projects as Apocalypse Now, Scarface, and Network between them. The editing here is notable, as we move between the present day, in full colour, to the past, presented in crisp black and white. Kaye also took the reins as the cinematographer and delivers some stunning shots that linger and seduce. (His attempts to have his name removed from the credits indicates he was less impressed with the final product.)

Crude scenes intent on shocking and disgusting the audience achieve their goal; they are necessary to push the viewer into the headspace of Derek’s hatred, to be face-to-face with evil in human form. The movie borders on manipulative at times, as the stirring and operatic score swells we are being told this is a glorious moment; the scene where Derek is arrested serves perfectly to demonstrate how instead of feeling something we are left more aware of the “man behind the curtain” pulling the strings.  American History X delivers fine performances and some beautiful imagery yet ultimately never soars.

3.5/5

American History X is available on Quickflix.

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