Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Retro Review: AMERICAN HISTORY X (1998)

American History X is a film directed by Tony Kaye and written by David McKenna, about a former neo-nazi skinhead who attempts to stop his younger brother from following in his old footsteps. The film stars Edward Norton as Derek Vinyard, Edward Furlong as Danny Vinyard, Beverly D’Angelo as Doris Vinyard, Jennifer Lien as Davina Vinyard, and Avery Brooks as Dr. Bob Sweeney. There is a much larger cast, but the film revolves around the five characters these actors play.

I was recommended this film by a friend who acknowledges it as his favorite film of all time. So my expectations were a little heightened to say the least. The film starts off with a shot of the ocean and some music playing behind it. It's a really incredible score that is supported with a heavenly choir. It switches into a darker tone and from that point you start to really feel like you get the mood. Even if you are uncertain at first, subconsciously the movie helps put you in a certain mood that will help your understanding and experience of the story that is about to play out. The opening sequence itself is a masterpiece in its own right. Its handle of perspectives and the ability to contrast the score that just became unnerving to a sex scene which ironically is anything but sexy. With the score and the look on Danny’s face, the audience starts to feel a bit awkward that this kid has to listen to this sex scene. Where the scene truly becomes brilliant is how it smoothly transitions from something we can easily understand to something that quickly takes a new turn - a new, more shocking yet real focus of the movie, racism in America and the consequences it has. The purpose of the opening sequence is to shock you. That’s simple enough, but the reason to me was to tell the audience what they're in for.

The film then reveals a lot more moving forward from the opening sequence. From the brother, Danny, being the narrator, to the Principle Dr. Bob Sweeney giving him a new assignment, an essay, on his brother, in an attempt to try to get Danny to look at his life from an outsiders perspective.
The film really is a masterpiece when it comes to balancing themes and tones. It’s able to shift into more uncomfortable topics smoothly and harshly whenever it wants. That ability gives Tony Kaye the power to really make the audience feel whatever he wants. From feeling uncomfortable, to feeling empathy for people we shouldn’t be. I think there are many things this film does brilliantly but this is something that really makes this film worth dissecting to try to understand how Tony Kaye was able to pull this off.

I do think the cinematography was masterful. I always say that the blending of editing, score, and cinematography needs to be synced in order to really elevate the film. This film did just that. In the cinematography it was using extreme close-ups in conversations to make the audience really understand both sides and black & white sequences to help differentiate the past and present while creating a metaphor for the characters who once saw the world as black & white. The score contrasted the close-ups by using a strong orchestral sound that really made every conflict seem grander. The score really made every emotion stand out and with the style of the cinematography really helped sync with that direction to help focus on character emotion. There wasn’t really a lot of stand out moments for editing, which isn’t a negative at all as sometimes the best editing is when you don’t even see it.

Before we talk about the directing I want to talk about the performances. Starting with the infamous Edward Norton. What makes this performance so incredible is how charismatic he is. There is a moment in the film where he says how angry he feels and you can really see that in his character throughout. When he starts to talk about things he feels strongly about, his emotions really heighten and he just loses control. It really makes his character multi-layered and realistic. Next we move on to Edward Furlong who plays a teenager absolutely perfectly. From his nonchalant mannerisms that match his character decisions, it really feels like this teenager just wants to be accepted by his brother. Which I really connected with. I do feel the rest of the cast did their best with the characters they were playing, and what I really loved about the characters overall is that no one character was perfect. They all had problems and throughout the film were trying to deal with them. It made empathizing with both sides a lot easier. The other interesting decision was to have bad apples on both sides. Which made the whole environment feel incredibly realistic.

The last thing I always talk about is the captain of the ship, the director. In this case, Tony Kaye who interestingly enough also was the director of photography.  I think in order to really emphasize how good of a job Tony did I want to hark back to a scene in film, a dinner scene. Where Derek is explaining how he feels about the immigrants and the black people in the country. He’s saying some very racist things and we, the audience, listen to this and want to respond back. We don’t have the power to, even though we would if we were sitting there, but we aren’t. Once the camera then moves on to the other characters we realize the reason they aren’t debating back is because they, like us, also feel powerless. There is another scene that is known to be one of the hardest scenes to watch in cinema, I won't get into it because I personally feel that every film fan needs to watch it. As a whole it’s scenes like these that are directed brilliantly that elevate the film. I truly believe Tony should've gotten more recognition than he did.

There aren’t a lot of gripes I have with the film, though if there would be one it is that I would have liked to see more detailed scenes in the prison. I feel like the film did an adequate job and did what it was setting out to do, however I feel like if they spent more time in the prison it could have made the film even better.

I think this film was an incredible piece that really put both sides of an issue in perspective and started a conversation that was really needed at the time. I believe it will stand the test of time and cement itself as one of the greatest films of all time, if it hasn’t done so already.

Score: 9.5/10 

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