Friday, 25 March 2016

Blind Spots Series... American History X (1998)

Back in the 90's, no actor did a better disenfranchised angry man than Edward Norton, from Primal Fear to Fight Club, and this film here. Even though I was a big Norton fan around that time, I hadn't been especially tempted to see American History X at any point since release, and that can only be due to the subject matter. He plays a violent, racist thug who spouts Nazi propaganda and demands that anyone who doesn't conform should be punished, deported or worse. Surrounded by and brainwashed into extremism from a young age, as is the little brother he has so much influence over, the story leads towards him committing an act of extreme violence and dealing with the consequences that follow.

It is actually one of the most shocking films I've seen in some time, and one that will be difficult to forget. I wouldn't necessarily call it an enjoyable film, nor particularly easy to watch, but it is absorbing and never gratuitous for the sake of it. There is a point to the violence, a message being hammered home that this kind of extremism still exists and is as hate-fuelled as it was when Adolf Hitler first came to power with this nonsense. The way the story unfolds is an intelligent means of showing what it's like to be involved in these hate-crime groups, and also what it's like to be someone trapped inside such a community when you don’t hold such views or come to realise how misguided it is to make hatred the main purpose of your life. Norton is magnificent, such a furious performance that recalls his amazing rant into the mirror in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (which I highly recommend). His skin-headed, Swastika-tattooed Derek Vinyard is one of the most fearsome characters ever committed to celluloid, reaching a crescendo in one scene that I had to briefly look away from (something I very rarely feel the need to do). Not that it matters, but how he didn’t win an Oscar for such a performance is beyond me.

I didn’t get from the film an idea of how widespread these problems still are in America, but even though it is fictionalised you’d have to assume the writers based it on some kind of reality. If the message is that America is especially prone to this kind of thinking and behaviour amongst it’s society, then I guess the film is raising the question of why, even if it’s not really providing the answer. This level of anti-immigrant, anti-black bigotry may only be within a small percentage of the population, but what I can say with some confidence is that if Donald Trump ends up President, the film might as well be retitled American Future X.


Blind Spots is an ongoing project from film site The Matinee, and this year I’m joining in. The idea is to pick 12 well known or highly rated films you’ve not seen but feel you should have, and vow to watch them all by the end of the year. If you write your own film blog, feel free to join in at any time. My list is here, all selected from IMDb’s top 250.

I've also recently started listening to an excellent podcast called Filmspotting, where two guys sit around discussing recent and older movies in some depth, and picking top fives on a related theme. They frequently refer to films they've not seen as Blind Spots, so the idea is obviously more common than I'd realised. You can download the podcast each week for free on iTunes or the Filmspotting website.

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