Not all great movies make you feel fuzzy inside. Some rip at you, make you face yourself, your weaknesses, and everything you've kept hidden inside out of fear that you're more of a monster than you let on.
American History X made me feel like shit.
I started the movie at 11PM. I finished it at 1AM. I tucked myself into bed, and didn't stop crying until 1:30. I finally fell asleep around 2:30...and it's all Edward Norton's fault.
Norton plays Derek Vinyard, a Neo-Nazi skinhead whose inherent intelligence is used in service of his burning hatred of minorities. He's sent to prison for manslaughter, and in the pen he rethinks his life's course. Once released, he has save his brother (Edward Furlong) from sharing his fate.
What makes the film so difficult to watch is that we are "treated" to scenes of Norton spouting hate rhetoric, but he does it so forcefully and persuasively that it's very difficult to judge the words for what they are: hate. He uses cold logic, harsh statistics...it's easy to see how people are caught up in all of this. Thankfully, his explosions into violence further drive home the point that his arguments rely on a double standard.
The real kicker to all of the Skinhead talk is that we're so used to trusting Norton. He's always the baby-faced good guy who we can believe...and he turns around a gives this amazingly powerful performance, playing a character that we are forced to loathe.
Thankfully, Derek's life path turns around, and even if we can't completely forget what he has done, we can forgive him somewhat - if only because he is a bright person and he does try to rectify his past mistakes.
Tony Kaye's direction is quietly understated. The only overt decision he made is to film the "present-day" scenes in color, and the flashbacks in black and white, providing an eerie contrast (and an odd sense of inevitable downfall to the scenes in the past - nothing says no future like black and white). Around the time of release, he did some bitching and moaning that Norton had re-edited the film to beef up his role. He eventually sued New Line Cinema for a sum in excess of $200 million.
If the message of the film gets a bit didatic, or the storyline balance is a little off (Norton's entire time in prison is one long flashback that could have been broken up a bit), it hardly matters in the end. American History X is unrelenting. It rarely takes the easy paths, and once the credits roll, you realize that to do so would have been massive folly, an undercutting of all the movie had worked for.
This is, perhaps, one of the most difficult films there is there is to watch. Nobody gets out completely unscathed in this film. Not the white people, not the black people, not the correctional system (Norton's character kills two people and he gets out in three years), and certainly not the viewer. If there's the smallest seed of intolerance in the bowels of your soul, it will be shown to you, and it will not be pleasant. I'm a very tolerant person, and American History X shook me to my core.