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.