Lurking beneath the apocalyptic visual finesse of ad-director Tony Kaye's first feature lies a central challenge: where does racism come from? More specifically, at what point does the standard "Takin'-our-women-and-jobs..." bonehead cabbie-chat ignite into something more organised and sinister? But Kaye and screenwriter David McKenna adopt such a concise approach to an already discussed-to-bits issue that, in the end, the tale almost becomes smothered by the telling.
American History X is a bold, incendiary piece of film-making which takes its key cue from Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing (tensions simmering at the heart of a multi-racial community), but zooms in even further to examine the cause-and-effect of racism as a more insular disease: it's a family thing.
The mundane domestic setting serves Kaye's primary purpose: to sidestep the standard redneck clichés and keep his characters humanised and empathy-friendly. It all looks good, and the performances (particularly Norton and, bizarrely, Stacy Keach, as his sleazy, Satanic mentor) are sound. But there's a sense that, somewhere along the line, the focus has been derailed.
It's probably a case of defiantly non-Hollywood intentions being mauled by simple movie-biz conventions. Suggestions that Norton re-edited the film to increase his screen-time are made plausible by one or two moments of scrappy, damage-limitation dubbing (voice heard, lips don't move), and the lack of ideological balance to Derek's dinner-table rhetoric. High-school principal Sweeney (Brooks) is too high-minded and cosy to offer anything resembling an intellectual nemesis, and a Jewish family guest's response to a hysterical anti-Semitic rant is little more than a sad sigh of liberal impotence.
Derek's Damascus-like prison reform is also a problem. At first, he settles into an uneasy tribalism with a skinhead contingent, who turn on him when he's humanised by a black co-worker. It's hard to accept that a character who in the film's most notorious, barely watchable sequence - has recently split a man's head apart with the heel of his boot could so easily be turned from the dark side by some jive talkin' amid the laundry-folding.
But, ironically, for someone Kaye alleges has ruined his film, Norton is by far the best thing about it: turning in a fierce, concentrated performance, which would surely bag him a Best Actor nomination were the film not so typically Academy-alienating.
Another saviour is McKenna's dialogue, which zips and crackles along, avoiding any temptation to temper Derek's soap-box charisma with more non-threatening crankiness. The parts are all there, but, conspiracy or not, the sum doesn't quite do them justice.
An edgy, visionary, but painfully flawed debut which, despite an acrimonious introduction to the vagaries of The Hollywood Way, should hopefully kickstart Kaye's reputation as something much more than just 'maverick Brit ad-guy'.