The Power of "American History X"

American History X

One of the great films of the ‘90s and according to the #30 best rated film of all-time. Tony Kaye’s “American History X” starring Edward Norton and Edward Furlong is a deeply moving story of love and hate.  Norton’s portrayal of Derek Vinyard, a reformed white supremacist, earned him an Oscar Nomination as well as wide critical praise.

Hate breeds hate and feasts on vulnerable young minds.  With a little encouragement from the wrong group of people and a charismatic leader Derek is led down a dangerous path.  Living in Los Angeles Derek and his family seems to be living a normal suburban life until his firefighter father is killed while responding to a call in a dangerous neighborhood.  His father was a racist and influenced a lot a Derek and his younger brother Danny’s thoughts.  After his death, Derek found a sort of surrogate father in Cameron (played by Stacy Keach), a powerful white supremacist leader.  Derek takes to the teachings and rhetoric and is all in.  He now has a big swastika tattooed on his chest and a white power tat on his bicep.  

The film opens in black and white with a major turning point moment in Derek’s life, a group of young black men are trying to steal his truck from his driveway.  When Danny tells him about it, Derek bursts out of the house locked and loaded.  He shoots two of the guys and curb stomps the other.  This scene and other parts of the event are recalled throughout the film.  Derek is sent to prison for three years.  The film is told in a non linear fashion going back and forth between Derek’s activities before prison, his time locked up, and when he gets out.

In the present day Danny is seen going down the same road as Derek, his school report entitled “My Mein Kampf” obviously drew the attention of the faculty and of principal Dr. Bob Sweeney (a black man).  Danny’s new assignment is to write a report on his brother entitled “American History X”.  The overall voice and perspective of the film is through Danny’s eyes as he writes his report.  The bond between him and his brother is very strong and when Derek emerges from prison a changed man, he does everything he can to change Danny’s thinking.  Now looking for like an accountant, with his button up shirts and grown out hair, his old friends look for him to return to his old self.  Derek’s mind has grown in prison, the realities and lies of the white power movement become more clear as he is eventually betrayed by his arrayan brothers, for befriending Lamont, a black man he works in the laundry with.  Lamont calls him out on all of his bullshit and gets through to Derek on a deeper level. 

Where Derek tries to distance himself from his old life, he is met with some strong resistance.  He must now try to rescue his family from sickness, his mother has emphysema or something,   and poverty.  He does have a sister, Davina, who seems a little underused in the film and just kind of a prop.  When everything seems to be looking up and we think we're headed for a classic Hollywood ending, we have out hearts ripped out with an ending that really brings the house down.  It's tragic but feels right if all you do is spout hate don’t be surprised is it come back to bite you in the ass.  Hate has a memory and things can pop up when you least expect it.

Ryan Gosling is "The Believer"


Henry Bean’s film “The Believer” was the Grand Jury Award winner at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival and made a rising star out of Ryan Gosling.  Although acting since he was little, this was Ryan’s first starring role and his performance was nothing short of brilliant.  At first controversial due to its subject matter, if you actually watch the film you’ll find that the message is ultimately a positive one.  The “Believer” is also based on a true story.

Gosling plays Danny Balint a morally confused young man with fervent hate for Jews, but get this he’s Jewish himself.  Danny is a cocky young man with his buzz cut and proudly worn swastika t-shirt.  The opening scene shows him stalk and terrorize a young Jewish man through the streets and subway of New York City.  He punches and screams at him to fight back, but the man sheepishly takes it, only to walk away.  Danny’s story is about a young man in the midst of a crisis of faith and that of identity.  Somethings cannot be changed, his Jewish upbringing is so ingrained in his mind and body that no amount of rebellion or denial can shake what he truly is.

He roams around with a group of other white supremacists who seem to do nothing but pick fights and terrorize people.  Often winding up in front of a judge, who sentences them to sensitivity training.  They are brought before three Holocaust survivors and are forced to listen to their experiences in the concentration camps.  While his friend mocks and disrespects them, Danny is moved by the story of a man whose young son was murdered by a Nazi soldier.  This story will haunt him throughout the film as it is flashed back to a number of times. 

Danny then meets up with Curtis (Billy Zane) and Lina, the leaders of an organized fascist group, who see potential in him as a great leader and speaker to promote their cause.  It is there he also meets Lina’s daughter Carla AKA the love interest.  Danny’s commitment to hate and bigotry is starting to crumble when he and his friends vandalize a synagogue.  As he sees his friends desecrate the Torah, something inside him snaps.  He starts to doubt everything he’s believed in.  His most tightly guarded secret is also starting to leak out as well.  A New York Times reporter has been looking into his past and sets up an interview with him.  They get together at a coffee shop and towards the end, the reporter drops the bomb.  He knows he is Jewish and threatens to expose him, Danny doesn’t take this lightly as he pulls out a gun and threatens to kill himself if he prints the story.

Danny’s double life can’t last for much longer as his mind is constantly at war with itself.  The Nazi rhetoric and propaganda he has been spouting no longer rings true, but like in the mafia, it’s hard to just walk away from it all.  We come to a climax that is both tragic and life-affirming.  Danny’s final action to rid himself of the hate comes with a price, and he is willing to pay it.  Does this atone for all of the pain and suffering he has caused?.  “The Believer” is a great film and can be seen for free if you have Amazon Prime.  

Nicholas Winding Refn's "Drive" with Ryan Gosling


The 2008 film “Bronson” starring Tom Hardy was the calling card film for director Nicolas Winding Refn’s as it received a hand full of awards and rave reviews.  He initially drew a small cult following with his “Pusher” trilogy of films about a gritty and brutal drug dealer.  “Drive” in 2011 marks his first major studio film with a wide theatrical release. Boasting an impressive cast, Ryan Gosling stars as “Driver” a mechanic and stunt driver by day and a for-hire wheelman by night.  He’s a cool and quiet dude sporting a flashy silver jacket with a scorpion on his back.  With its 80s style Euro synth score by Cliff Martinez, “Drive” has a unique feel and aura to it.

Set in downtown Los Angeles the opening scene shows the Driver at work.  Evading the cops while being the getaway man for a couple of small-time thieves.  The atmosphere is electric as he darts up and down alleys and freeways and is finally able to freely walk away from the consummate professional. 

The Diver then becomes involved with Irene (Carey Mulligan), the single mother of a little boy named Benicio, who lives next door.  Her husband Standard is serving time and is in debt to some mafia guys.  The mob big shots are Bernie and Nino played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perelman and in typical movie fashion, they own a pizzeria as a front for there activities.  The Driver works at garage repairing the car for Shannon (Bryan Cranston) who also has a history with the mob guys, and has paid his debts.  This group of characters all intermingles in a story about masculinity and drive (the motivational kind).

The Driver is a man of few words, an anti-hero with good intentions.  He lives a solitary life and follows his own code of ethics.  But when it comes to protecting Irene and Benicio from the mob, it drags him down into some pretty dark emotional places.  When Standard is paroled he comes home to Irene and Benicio, leaving the Driver out in the cold.  Although when Standard asks for his help to repay his debts, he agrees.  When things eventually go south, the Driver finds himself in a life or death situation.  The Driver is a man of action and when Irene and Benicio are threatened, he doesn’t take this lightly.  Intensely brutal violence has also been a hallmark of Winding Refn’s films and we get plenty of here with Drive.  The ending feels authentic as it doesn’t go for a stock Hollywood finale.  It feels right but at the same time a little sad.  It has you asking questions but in a good way.  “Drive” did well when award season came around and it furthered the careers of Gosling and Refn.  But only to be taken down a peg on their next collaboration in the completely unwatchable “Only God Forgives”.

Nicholas Winding Refn's "The Neon Demon" Starring Elle Fanning


Beauty and style are two words that immediately come to mind with writer/director Nicholas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon” for both good and bad reasons.  The film starring Elle Fanning and Jena Malone comes off as extremely egotistical with style overcoming substance.  Although the film does try to come off as a satirical attack on the modeling industry and our concepts of beauty itself.  This point is muted with several bizarre and questionable scenes where bright neon lights and over-stylized symbolism cloud the message.

Elle Fanning plays Jesse, a fresh young girl of 16 arriving on the L.A. fashion scene.  She is beautiful, innocent, and pure, for how long?  The film opens with her at a somewhat foreshadowing photoshoot where she lies dead sprawled out on a couch covered in blood. Afterward, she has help wiping the fake blood off with the older and more experienced make up artist Ruby (Jenna Malone).  Ruby admires his beauty and they quickly become friends.  They go to parties and mingle with a few other experienced models, Sara and Gigi, who are obviously jealous of Jesse.  After years of modeling and the constant threat of newer, younger faces and bodies, Jesse is just another threat.

Jesse has a meeting with an agency and although she is really only 16, they just fudge the papers and have her say she is 19.  She gets invited to do a test shoot with a highly sought after a photographer named Jack.  Jack is a stereotypical photographer. He is an intense, intimidating, and demanding of his models.  He closes the set so it's just the two of them and in no time, Jesse is nude.  Although Jack does not come off as a sleazy perv, a professional artist pushing the boundaries of his craft.  The shoot leaves Jesse with a sense of confidence and power not to mention covered in gold paint.

Jesse lives in a low rent motel run by Hank (Keanu Reeves) and after coming home one night finds an intruder in her room in the form of a mountain lion.  Whether this is supposed to be a metaphor or just something that happens in L.A. I’m not completely sure, but needless to say Jesse is freaked out.  She starts dating a photographer, Dean, from her first shoot (the one with the blood).  He is about 25 or so and is by all outward appearance a pretty good dude.  As Jesse quickly climbs the local modeling ladder, things get a little more intense and we begin to see some changes in her attitude.  She is well on her way to becoming a neon demon.

When things get a little rough Jesse runs to Ruby who has her own plans for her.  Ruby has had a thing for her ever since they met and when she finally makes a pass at her, Jesse freaks out and tosses her aside.  Ruby then really starts to lose her shit.  She also works at a morgue applying makeup to cadavers when her deepest fantasies for Jesse get a little carried away and she ends up defiling that poor corpse.  Jesse’s ultimate fate is a little anti-climactic and the 3 women go all medieval on her ass and consume her beauty both literally and figuratively.

Winding Refn referred to his film as a “ceremonial celebration of narcissism” and used a lot of artificial visuals to make things feel more synthetic and fake.  He takes the age old story of the pretty young girl going off to Hollywood to follow her dream and in the end being unfulfilled (and dead).  The basic story structure is nothing new, but the visual style and the always wonderful Elle Fanning make this film something to check out.  If you have Amazon Prime it is currently streaming for Free.  Amazon Studios was also involved in the distribution of the film.