After killing two black gang members that attempted to break into his car, Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) is sent to prison leaving his mother, brother Danny (Edward Furlong) and two sisters to fend for themselves. His firefighter father died years previously when he was shot in the line of duty by other black gang members.
Upon release from his three year term, Derek is horrified to find that Danny has joined the same neo-Nazi gang that he was second-in-command of. Danny clearly gets into trouble but one black teacher is willing to work with him, encouraging him to get his feelings out into an essay entitled "American History X", telling the story of his brother's introduction into the movement.
American History X is currently the highest rated movie on IMDb that hasn't scored five stars in an Empire Magazine review - which was the main reason for watching this film. After reading the back of the DVD box, which proclaims violence as a way of life I wasn't overly impressed, but nothing could prepare me for what I was about to witness.
Of course, American History X can be ridiculed for the two reasons for Derek to turn his life downhill and back again - the influence of his father in his younger years is eventually overturned by his meeting a black guy in prison - but the deep themes that drive the film more than make up for its lacklustre backbone.
Racism aside, and family is the big issue in the film - and especially the influence an older sibling can have on their younger brothers and sisters. Edward Furlong, who was given the monumental challenge to narrate the film, is also the actor behind Derek's brother and he does a fine job at portraying Danny's benevolence alongside the other raw sadistic feelings that are beginning to develop.
Isolation is also covered along with its polar opposite of gang culture. It firmly lays the blame of the brother's predicament on the breakup of the family - which is a huge current affair, even today - followed by their integration into the neo-Nazi community. Derek's jail time is shown as the isolation that was required in order for him to reassess his beliefs. Bizarrely, despite the glamourisation of violence within the film, this also helps to show its moral heart.
Sure, it has a few faults, but nothing to stop the well deserved 5-star commendation.