The film introduces us to Derek Vinyard (the always excellent, and very buff Edward Norton) as he is let out of prison for a racially motivated murder of a black man who was breaking into his family’s car. While he has been in prison, his idolizing younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) has followed in his footsteps, joining the local neo-Nazi gang led by an influential father figure played by Stacy Keach. Except while he was in prison, Derek has rehabilitated himself, and rejected his old ways of violent racism, though his swastika tattoos on his body serve as scars to remind him of what he was. Young Danny is confused that his brother isn’t the tough guy who he remembered, and Derek tries to share with him (his past is shown in none-too-subtle black and white flashbacks) what caused him to change over his time in prison.
Skinhead Ed Norton is truly a sight to behold: shaved head, goateed, and frighteningly muscular, not to mention his tattoos. It is easy to see why he was nominated for several acting awards. The flashback scenes of the violence that he and his thugs committed is truly horrifying, especially the scene of the murder that put him in prison.
But at the same time, I felt like there was something missing… like there should have been another hour or so in the film. What led him to become a skinhead? This was supposedly explained in a few sentences, but I wanted to know more about what could form a monster like Derek. And while he is in prison, it is supposedly one experience that makes him see the light, and reform into a good guy. I wasn’t convinced that he could change so easily.
It was too bad that the story itself ended up frustrating me. American History X has an exceptionally strong ensemble cast along with Norton, including Avery Brooks as a teacher that won’t give up on his troubled students, and Beverly D’Angelo and Jennifer Lien as the mother and sister of the young men. I wonder if there is a director’s cut out there that puts back the pieces of the story that I thought were missing?