Actor Edward Norton gets another vote for "DeNiro of His Generation" with his performance in "American History X," an often-powerful, sometimes-top-heavy exploration of urban racism. Norton plays Derek Vineyard, a neo-Nazi skinhead who repents while serving time for the brutal murder of an African-American burglar. Upon his release, he tries to steer his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) away from the same hate-filled dead end.
Demonstrating the skill that has become his trademark, Norton ("Primal Fear," "Rounders") once again slips into his role so thoroughly it's frightening. The Mansonian glint in Derek's postmurder eyes seems far too chilling to have come from the same actor that crooned to Drew Barrymore in Woody Allen's "Everyone Says I Love You." Norton makes Derek's behavior and attitudes believable, even when the ease of his conversions, seemingly timed for dramatic expediency, is less convincing.
Furlong's Danny is poignantly drawn -- beneath the tough skin is a child who just wants the love and approval of his big brother. Fine performances abound from the underrated Beverly D'Angelo as the brothers' mother and the underworked Elliott Gould in a small but heartfelt role as a Jewish teacher who wants to date her. Avery Brooks and Stacy Keach round out the strong cast that is the film's greatest asset.
"History X" withstands less scrutiny when it comes to the direction and script. Though mostly powerful and thought-provoking, some scenes lean toward TV movie-of-the-week melodrama. The inherent power of the subject matter would seem to dictate a "less is more" treatment, but such an approach is largely overlooked here in favor of flashy, self-conscious camerawork and manipulative music. This approach backfires on several occasions and, despite the browbeating antiracist message, even seems to suggest an agenda that is less than egalitarian. One of the most disquieting moments in the film, whether intentional or not, disturbs not with content but presentation: A skinhead gang's victorious basketball-game-cum-turf-battle, shot in slow-motion black-and-white and swelling with triumphant music, is eerily reminiscent of the infamous Nazi propaganda film "Triumph of the Will."
To be fair to director Tony Kaye, who has disowned this cut of the film, it is not clear whether these problems stem from his direction or from the demands of some formulaic studio suit. Either way, the flaws don't significantly diminish the film's visceral impact. And if some of the answers are provided a little too neatly, at least the film bothers to ask some difficult questions.