"American History X" portrays a young man turned into a neo-Nazi when his father, a man he unquestioningly idolizes as so many young sons do their fathers, is murdered. His father, a racist police officer, plants a seed of racism in his son's mind shortly before his death, and with the bloody fertilization of a brutal murder, the seed produces a young man filled with hatred and rage, seeking to spill blame on those different than himself. What makes Norton's character of Derek Vinyard so horrifying and plausible is his intelligence. This is not a person who swallows a prejudice whole. He turns it into a philosophy of life, and it is only when his rage flames out of control that we can see how dangerous his views are, how far reaching the hatred. Culminating in two murders that chill to the bone, Derek Vinyard is imprisoned. Outside of those prison walls, his younger brother, played also with exceptional skill by Edward Furlong, yet another boy who idolizes his older sibling, continues on the path Derek has blazed. Inside the prison walls, Derek Vinyard undergoes a harsh lesson of humility coupled with the kindness of an expected enemy that he finally realizes has saved him. Few things teach better than pain. Most lessons in life are learned best when we hit bottom. Derek Vinyard hits bottom hard, but it is the kindness of those he had seen as enemies that provides now the balm of human compassion that helps him complete his inner growth. He emerges from prison a changed man. Life is not so neat, however, and the seeds of hatred he has sown in prior years must yet travel their full course.
To change a man's heart is a difficult feat. To transform hatred and rage into wisdom and compassion happens rarely, too rarely. But Norton makes this transformation of a man's heart ring true. The movie stands as a powerful statement of the possibilities of changing evil into good, of waking a spirit seemingly lost to hatred to the grace of love in what becomes a true hero: the man who was once fallen, who grows through his pain, and becomes a man able to stand up for what takes true courage - doing the right thing.
The only flat performance in AHX is by Stacy Keach, who plays the guru of the Nazi movement. He is unable to pop out of his one dimensional character. But all other performances in this movie, notably also Beverly D'Angelo's potrayal of Derek's mother, are first class. However uncomfortable some of the graphic scenes in this movie, it is a must see.
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