AMERICAN HISTORY X – Blu-ray review

You know how you sometimes watch a really good film that leaves a lasting positive impression, but you don’t necessarily ever want to watch it again? That’s the way I felt about “American History X” when I first saw it about a decade ago, and it’s the same way I feel today after watching it again on Blu-ray. It’s an impressive film in every way, yet it’s not one I’m dying to see again, even in high definition. Maybe it’s just too disturbing.

Anyway, one can readily see why Edward Norton received an Academy Award nomination for his role as a young neo-Nazi skinhead in 1998’s “American History X.” His performance is riveting, gutsy, crackling with pent-up tensions, yet singularly compassionate, too. The film itself is a sincere yet unrelentingly harsh look at race hatred in our modern society, and the film deserves consideration on Blu-ray. Yet I have to continue wondering about its repeatability factor. Certainly, it’s an important film, and certainly Blu-ray is the best way to see it. But, as I say, I’m not sure I would want to watch it more than a few times to get the idea.

Norton reportedly had a hand in reworking the script, which may explain why he’s the best part about it. He plays Derek Vinyard, a young man lured to the dark side of his nature after a black man shoots and kills his father. Doing the luring is a thoroughly despicable character named Cameron Alexander, played by Stacy Keach, a white-supremacist villain who enlists alienated, disillusioned youths into his white-power group. Then he stands as far away as possible and manipulates them into doing his bidding, never himself taking an active hand in the corrupt activities he orchestrates.

The filmmakers show us Derek’s past in stunning black-and-white flashbacks, how he kills two black intruders on his property and winds up serving three years in prison, how his several years locked up change him for the better, and how upon his release he tries to steer his younger brother Danny, played by Edward Furlong, away from racist gang life and away from Cameron Alexander in particular.

While the film deals with social issues as honestly as possible, time and character constraints necessarily restrict its range. Racism is a serious problem, and racist organizations such as the skinhead one depicted in the film exist in seriously large numbers. People get caught up in racial hatred. Violence results. And, yes, people change. But it’s that last item that concerns me. All of the characterizations seem distanced and one-sided. As most filmmakers do, director Tony Kaye and writer David McKenna stack the deck in order to make their case. We get a pretty good idea of why Derek becomes so enraged against blacks and minorities. The film shows us that his father was racist to begin with, and a father’s violent death could be the turning point for any impressionable youth. The hard part is accepting how a man so steeped in hatred as Derek is could–after few years in prison where he experiences fellow whites betraying one another and a black man befriending him–change so radically that he suddenly becomes a sensitive, caring, enlightened human being who wants no more part of racism? It’s an idealistic sentiment and probably such drastic turnabouts do occur, but the film’s portrayal of the situation did not entirely persuade me.

Additionally, as with Derek’s sudden change of heart, the story presents many of the other characters as simply all good or all bad. Dr. Sweeny, the school principal played by Avery Brooks, is all good–a black man of impeccable courage and conviction, who never gives up trying to encourage his young charges to do the right thing. Derek’s younger brother, Danny, is all bad, totally submerged in Cameron Alexander’s movement. Murray, Derek’s mother’s boyfriend played by Elliott Gould, is all good–a mushy Jewish liberal who says entirely the right things but has no backbone to pursue them. And, of course, Cameron Alexander is all bad–bad to the quick, evil incarnate. This makes for strong dramatic action, but it doesn’t necessarily add up to genuine human emotions.

Even the story’s framework is awkward: Dr. Sweeny assigns Danny, the younger brother, to write an essay on his family history and his older brother’s impact on his life. The paper is part of what Sweeny calls “American History X.” The film leads us to believe, then, that the movie is to be Danny’s story. But it isn’t. It’s Derek’s story. Even though a completely unsympathetic Danny is writing it, we see things from Derek’s point of view. It’s oddly disconcerting. Finally, one can anticipate the ending coming a mile off (which nevertheless comes out of nowhere); the only question is where and when.

“American History X” is a brutal, uncompromising motion picture on the subject of racism in America, as well as the influence of family and friends on a person’s emotional development. There is no questioning the movie’s good intentions, and much of it has an air of uncompromising truth. But it’s perhaps best not to scrutinize the details.

Let me make this clear at the outset: Although I did not find the film’s Blu-ray video quality the best I’ve ever seen, it does not appear the fault of New Line’s transfer. The studio engineers use a dual-layer BD50 and a VC-1 encode to reproduce the movie, and it looks to me as though the picture quality probably matches the original print.

There are no signs of filtering going on, with plenty of natural film grain throughout the movie, and there isn’t the slightest hint of edge enhancement. The thing is, high definition can bring out characteristics heretofore hidden by standard def. For instance, the overall object delineation fluctuates between faintly soft, blurred, and razor sharp. Interestingly, it is the black-and-white footage that looks best, with strong, deep black levels. Colors are strong, too, and usually natural, except in a few instances where facial tones appear a bit too dark. What’s more, in staying with the overall mood of the story, the filmmakers keep the hues subdued, never bright or showy. The screen size approximates the movie’s original 1.85:1 theatrical-release ratio, nicely filling out the dimensions of a widescreen TV.

We find the sound reproduced via Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1. Everything works as advertised, although the audio doesn’t have a lot to do except convey dialogue. I preferred the TrueHD track, of course, but not by much. There were times when even it sounded a touch edgy and light. Even though the surrounds get little action, you will hear occasional motorcycles and shattering glass from the sides and rear.

The disc includes three deleted scenes (about seven minutes long) that look as though they might have worked pretty well if kept in the film. It’s too bad there isn’t an easy way to program a Blu-ray disc to include missing scenes seamlessly into the fabric of a story. But after watching the film, one can easily see where they belong in the context of the plot, and imagination fills in the rest. New Line also offer a generous thirty-three scene selections; a widescreen trailer in high def; English as the only language choice; Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
“American History X” is a violent film on a weighty topic. It’s frank and honest, its characters, actions, and ideas compelling the viewer to look further and become involved. It is not an adventure. It is not a thriller. It is entertaining, to be sure, yet not in any fun way; it is thought provoking, yet unsettling; it is hard-hitting, yet compassionate. Still, it is not entirely satisfying. Maybe it’s just too pat and too predictable. Nevertheless, it is well worth seeing and should keep viewers glued to their seats. Beyond one sitting, however, I make no guarantees.