Monday, November 24, 2014

AMERICAN HISTORY X (1998) - Tony Kaye
& THE BELIEVER (2001) - Henry Bean

Were all Neo-Nazi youth in the late '90s and early aughts named "Danny"? Danny Vinyard (Edward Furlong) meet Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling). The two of you have a lot to learn from one another. You're both on the fast track to a violent, untimely death, thanks to your backward beliefs. Or maybe thanks to your older brother's influence (Edward Norton). Either way, one last Aryan bullshit session over Bitburgers seems in order.

Though I'd heard good things about both of these films years ago, I'd yet to have the displeasure of meeting either Danny. Watching them one after the after, I couldn't help but be reminded of another pair of similarly themed coming of age flicks from earlier in the decade...Boyz N the Hood and Menace II Society. It might seem counterintuitive to compare those South Central gangland staples to a duo of movies about White Power teens (one in L.A., one in New York). But they're all street movies about powerless young males (black or white) from lower class surroundings reacting (poorly and violently) to their environments. They are all about race and racism but from flip sides of the coin. Too reductive? Maybe.

American History X is to Boyz N the Hood as The Believer is to Menace II Society. There, I said it. Now what does that mean? It means American History X is the flashier but also the clunkier of the two. There are some brilliant, harrowing parts. The scene in the street where Venice Beach neo-Nazi Edward Norton stomps a black carjacker to death in his underwear as his young brother looks on is just about as disturbing as you can get (I will forever be haunted by the image of teeth clamped down on a concrete curb). The prison laundry room scenes where Norton befriends a black inmate and begins to learn the errors in his thinking do not come off forced. The monochrome flashbacks are annoying at first, but you get used to them. Even the tragic twist ending doesn't feel like a total cheat. But for every Edward Norton scene that works (B&W or color) there's one with Edward Furlong that plays like an after-school special. The framework of the entire film is about a school assignment he's writing about his brother's life entitled American History X. So when all is said and done you're left with an uncomfortable feeling of having done homework. Hitler Youth: The Hollywood, Cliff Notes Version.

The Believer, like Menace, digs a little deeper into a similar milieu. It is American's wilier New York cousin. As a well-educated Jew who turns his back on his upbringing then turns his anger into a worrisome belief system (cherry-picking parts of Nazi ideology where he needs it), Gosling's Danny is a far more compelling character. He's not only at war with all the minorities around him, he's first and foremost at war with himself. This guy doesn't need an older brother to look up and/or fear. All he has to do is look in mirror, see the prayer gartel strapped about waist and hanging out from beneath his swastika-laden tee.

There are also a few heavy-handed black and white flashbacks in The Believer, mostly to do with Gosling's character fantasizing about being an SS torturer in gruesome WWII scenarios. But his character's journey, despite ending in a similarly tragic fashion, doesn't need to rely on a twist. An infinite loop maybe (Danny climbing an unending set of stairs where he meets his old rabbinical school teacher at the top of every flight), but definitely not a twist.

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