Edward Norton is absolutely riveting as the menacing skinhead at the center of American History X, in the controversial star-making performance that earned him his second Oscar nomination. Among many impressive feats the actor pulls off in the role of Derek Vinyard, Norton packs on so much bulk that he is virtually unrecognizable from his debut as the scrawny schizophrenic in Primal Fear two years earlier. Standing shirtless with his hands behind his ears, at police gunpoint, Norton radiates the righteous hatred of a monster in the body of a tattooed Adonis. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is not equal to Norton's buff acting chops and searing presence. It ventures into shocking territory and presents violent images that can't be unseen, but it also resolves core issues in simplistic ways that are out of synch with its uncompromising intensity. The way the script handles Vinyard's unlikely prison mea culpa is especially scant, as though only the hatred were interesting enough to warrant serious treatment. Director Tony Kaye deserves credit for bringing a crisp look to the project, including the black-and-white flashback sequences that underscore Norton's talent and accentuate the rawness of the film's themes. But American History X could benefit from some subtlety in its handling of the complexity of bigotry, as well as its ultimate repudiation. A film clearly meant to make audiences reevaluate their prejudices, American History X is too extreme for viewers to meaningfully extrapolate its message to their own lives.
by Derek Armstrong review