Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 31, 2017)
Given the current political climate, 1998’s American History X seems timely. A neo-Nazi, Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) goes to prison for three years due to the racially-motivated slaying of two African-American men.
When Derek emerges from incarceration, he does so as a changed man who renounces his prior bigoted affiliations. However, Derek finds it tough to escape his past, partly because his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) seems determined to follow in Derek’s racist footsteps.
I never saw History during its release in the late 90s. I’m not sure why, but I suspect some negativity related toward its troubled production impacted me.
History went through multiple edits, some of which apparently involved meddling from the studio. The process turned so sour that director Tony Kaye unsuccessfully attempted to get his name removed from the project.
Despite those issues, History became one that critics and viewers embraced. As I write this in late 2017, History maintains a very reader high rating on IMDB, one that places it as the 31st best movie of all-time.
Which seems nuts, as there must be hundreds – maybe thousands – of superior films. Now that I’ve seen it, I’m not sure History stands as one of the 31 best movies from 1998, much less of all-time.
While the subject matter strongly appeals to me, the execution of History falters – and falters badly. For one, although the film often shoots for a documentary-style sense of verisimilitude, it fails to feel especially “real”, with awkward, convenient exposition and some odd choices.
For instance, early in the film we see a local news report that features Derek’s comments after his father’s death. Apparently we’re supposed to believe that the TV broadcast a) lets Derek ramble for an awfully long time and b) doesn’t stop abruptly after Derek lets loose with an “F”-bomb.
Seriously? An actual news report like this would last about 20 seconds, and even if it went longer, it’d cut suddenly once Derek threw out the profanity.
But History “needs” this scene to give us that cheap, unconvincing exposition I mentioned. This means the movie abandons any sense of believability so it can convey information it could find a better way to explore.
In addition, History lives in the World of the Monologue. Many parts of the film come to us via long, declarative statements – another factor that mars the movie’s sense of realism.
Not that History holds true to those stabs at verisimilitude, for despite its documentary-style trappings, it really wants to give us a big, broad melodrama in the end. That may become the film’s biggest weakness: even with some graphic and brutal scenes, History plays as broad and borderline operatic at times.
All of this seems mawkish and strangely sentimental for a tale such as this. Rather than impart a sense of gritty reality, History feels overly dramatic and fake. There’s way more Afterschool Special than I’d like on display.
We also get simplistic characters and developments. For instance, the sequence that imparts Derek’s movement to bigotry feels bizarrely “easy”.
As shown here in flashback, teenaged Derek seems pretty liberal and open-minded, as he gushes with praise about his African-American instructor (Avery Brooks). However, once his father rants about “Affirmative Black-tion” and other racist areas, Derek apparently turns on a dime and becomes a neo-Nazi nearly overnight.
Yeah, I get that in reality, Derek would’ve gotten a frequent diet of bigotry from his dad – it’s not likely that this breakfast chat stood as the first time the boy heard this form of sentiment from his old man. Still, the movie portrays the conversation as revelatory for Derek, and that’s what makes it easy and simplistic – Derek changes his attitude so rapidly that it becomes difficult to swallow.
All of this leaves a movie with surprisingly little dramatic or emotional impact. Even when the story climaxes with a major character development, it evokes scant reaction, as the finale seems trite.
That goes for the rest of History as well. Maybe down the road I’ll watch the movie again and I’ll discern why so many seem to view it as a great piece of work, but right now, it seems simplistic, melodramatic and unconvincing to me.