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American History X Internet Movie Database Logo

Director: Tony Kaye
Cast:
Edward Norton
Edward Furlong
Avery Brooks
Beverly D'Angelo
Elliott Gould
Genre: Drama

Okay, I promise not to be boring, but I do need to mention something I learned at Carolina during a Group Psychology class. Y'see, the teacher had been instrumental in developing something he called the Theory of Social Impact, which basically states this: The more people there are in a situation, the less likely any of them are going to actually do anything.

This theory, developed after the Kitty Genovese incident in NYC in the '60s (where 32 witnesses saw the murder of a girl without doing anything about it), is used to explain why group choirs are actually quieter than individual singers, why home basketball teams have a 76% winning advantage, and why the recycling never gets taken out in a fraternity.

It also explains why movies suck. If you ever bother staying for the credits of a movie, you'll see the names of about 300 different people, from Best Boys to Dolly Grips, all of whom did their little part to make a movie what it is. Like any good stereo system, however, your product is only as good as its weakest link—and movies have a million of them.

This is why the best-loved movies in history, from "Stagecoach" to "Titanic," have all been made by AUTEURS, the people who have singular control over how a movie looks, feels, acts and spits. Nobody was around to muck up Woody Allen's vision of "Manhattan," and there was no meddlesome accountant at Stanley Kubrick's trailer door while he was making "A Clockwork Orange." Movies that are made by a committee, always look like it, always lack emotional power and always leave the viewer with the sense that something vital was left on the cutting-room floor. And there's no better place to see that in action than in "American History X," opening on Friday. Much has been made already of director Tony Kaye's biblical feud with the execs at New Line Cinema, the auteur claiming that the Suits are presenting the world with a C-minus version of his movie.

Edward Norton stars as the ex-Nazi who comes home from prison to find that his little brother (Edward Furlong) has followed closely in his racist footsteps. Taking place in vibrantly grainy flashbacks and dazzling present action, Norton tries to erase his legacy from his brother, and maybe even break up the old skinhead gang while he's at it.

Norton's transformation from good-natured teen to Evil Genius—and back again—is the movie's strongest argument; the prison sequences are harrowing, and Norton's family is a study in how small moments can mess up a generation of well-meaning kids. Wrenching, steadfast and obviously at the top of his craft, Edward Norton deserves NONE of the crap that director Tony Kaye has said about him. Indeed, if it weren't for Norton, one wonders how this thing would have played at all. Because deep in the movie's structure, even the most casual observer can smell compromise. There is an uneven vision here—scenes that go on for too long, edits that were too short, characters that obviously had a lot more to say—that positively REEKS of an editing battle somewhere in Hollywood. While powerful and occasionally brilliant, it's hard to leave "American History X" without wondering what kind of movie is in the back of Tony Kaye's cerebellum, and what kind of footage lies dormant in a dumpster.

—Ian Williams

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© Copyright 2002 Ian Williams