American History X - rated - SIMMERING

In this film we see a magnificent performance by Edward Norton and an dreadful one by Edward Furlong. We also see a film that is not as good as it should be. But at least it is anchored by Norton's towering performance.

Like Russell Crowe in the similar, but much more intelligent and challenging Romper Stomper, Norton gives us a frightening portrait of a charismatic and intelligent natural born leader. He's mesmerising, especially in one scene during his arrest when his eyes sparkle and shine, his eyebrows lift quizzically, and he appears at the height of his powers: he's terrifying. He has huge muscles (the personal trainer deserves a best supporting Oscar) and frightening tattooes, and he's educated and attractive. What a combination!

The film's fault, and it's a major one, is that when Norton's character, Derek, undergoes a transformation, it's just not believable. The original Derek is so convincing and so terrifying, that he needs some kind of intellectual thunderstrike to change him. This seems to come, in the film, from getting to know a funny guy in the laundry. In fact, it should come from his time in gaol. It does, of course, but the film doesn't make this clear enough. There's some kind of problem in the editing or the balance of the film in this crucial section, and the message isn't sent well enough. There are events, such as a rape. But can a rape change your philosophy? Maybe, but there's got to be some mental process involved, surely. It's a major flaw in the film's credibility.

So Norton has a very hard job to do to sell himself as a "goody" than he has as a "baddy", but I think he does this well too. Norton's Derek has always been a clever guy who loved his family, but after his change he's more subdued and thoughtful. Furlong, on the other hand, as Danny the younger brother, fails to convince. He's too girly for a Nazi, and his bald head just makes him look like Sinead O'Connor. To make matters worse, to me, he sounded like Gwynneth Paltrow!

The supporting cast is variable. Elliot Gould seems to be impersonating a wet rag. Beverly D'Angelo tries hard as Doris, the mother, but her character's just not well enough written. The trajectory of the character has a great gap in it, and D'Angelo doesn't bridge it. Her character was grappling with similar problems to the mother in the Australian film The Boys (1998, Rowan Woods). There Lynette Curran brilliantly portrays Sandra Sprague, a single mother who's lost control of her "boys", and is now content just to love them, regardless.

As to the rest of the cast, Jennifer Lien (Kes in Star Trek Voyager) is more than fine as Davina, the sister. In fact, I'd have loved to hear more of her story. Guy Torry - who comes from a background of stand-up comedy - is a standout as the laundry-worker who befriends Derek. Stacey Keach is suitably malevolent and cowardly as Cameron Alexander, the puppet-master (even if the director spends a bit too much time hovering around his cleft lip). Yet all of these characters really only serve to remind me how much better a filmThe Boys was than this one is.

There are many shocking scenes in American History X, and many involve physical violence. But one scene which deeply shocked me came right at the beginning, when Edward Furlong's Danny submits to his teacher an essay on Mein Kampf ("My Mein Kampf" - good title!) which is deemed too terrible to be marked. What is this essay? Why is it rejected? Why can't it be marked as an academic work, regardless of its political stance? What about the First Amendment? Doesn't it apply to US high schools? None of these questions are even contemplated by the screenplay or the director.

First-time Director Tony Kaye does a stylish job with the visuals (though if I saw one more scene with slow-motion water droplets I was going to scream. Kaye came to films from advertising - what did he specialise in? Norsca ads?). And the music is a real problem. Choral music is used too early, so that when it could squeak by in the dramatic scheme of things, we've heard it all before. It's really an uninspired musical score from Anne Dudley (The Full Monty ).

The ending disappoints, too. The lesson that Danny learns is not a believable one: "Life's too short to be pissed off all the time"? Give me a break! What young kid thinks like this, even if he idolises his brother?

The film is powerful in many ways, but it cops out. It doesn't even try to answer the difficult questions it asks - and make no mistake - it does ask them. But after a tremendously promising beginning, it ultimately disappoints. There's no real attempt to explore the relationships in the film: brother/ brother, mother/ children, mentor/ pupils. We start with the profound and we end with the superficial. All it seems to be telling us is that: (a) young people are impressionable and will blindly copy the people they admire; and (b) that violence begets violence. Thanks for the insight, guys. I think I'll rent The Boys again.