By John H. Foote
Derek (Edward Norton) is an imposing figure as he stands in the middle of his street, wearing only boots and jockey shorts. Muscles ripple, a swastika covers his heart, various tattoos cover him, his head is shaved. He puts down his gun, gingerly as the police arrive, placing his arms above his head intertwining his fingers. It is then he turns to his younger brother, and just moments after committing murder, raises his eyebrows and smiles, his eyes blazing with anger, hate, and, what else? Justification?
A group of young black men has come to his home to rob him of his truck, a gift from his dead father, killed in a fight by blacks, but hearing them his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) interrupts him during a sexual escapade with his girlfriend. Armed, knowing they likely are he steps out to defend his home and family, shooting two of them dead. The third, wounded, he orders to place his teeth on the curb, and then viciously stomps on his head, killing him.
That smile is one of the most chilling moments I have experienced in a cinema. Pure Neo-Nazi power, pure hate, pure charisma, pure evil.
Norton had broken through just two years earlier with a trio of strong performances in Everyone Says I Love (1996), The People vs. Larry Flynn (1996) and best of all Primal Fear (1996) for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Packing on nearly fifty pounds of muscle, Tony Kay guided him through his performance as Derek Vineyard, a brilliant student seduced by the darkness of Nazism, used to recruit young people by a vile older man, Cameron (Stacy Keach) a Nazi.
The first time we see him in the film is alarming. The slight Norton is muscular, powerfully built, his head completely shaved and when he pulls off that T-shirt the black swastika proudly displayed on his chest over his heart. Derek is the perfect spokesman for Cameron, who convinces the youths, led by Derek to terrorize ethnic business owners in the area.
Sent to prison after the killings, deemed manslaughter because he was defending his home, he quickly makes a statement and is befriended by the neo-Nazis in prison. When he discovers one the Nazis is in business with a Spanish prisoner he speaks out, making enemies within the group. Trapped in the showers, the Nazis rape him, viciously, tearing his anus for six stitches, leaving on on the floor bleeding. Called to the prison his former school teacher, a black man comes in and sits with Derek while he weeps at the betrayal of his own kind, of everything he believed in.
Unassociated with any clique in prison leaves him vulnerable for attack, but it never comes. His chatty black friend in the laundry room speaks for him, protecting him, allowing him to do his time. Derek spends it reading and comes to realize the horrors of Nazism, his vile actions and the fact he was used by Cameron. His hair grows in, his time passes and finally, he is out, returning home to the cramped apartment his family lives in. Once there he is stunned to realize Danny is following in his footsteps, headed towards being a full-blown Nazi. He is in trouble at school, at home, openly challenges the blacks and defies his mother. Only when Derek tells his story, does Danny realize the path he is walking is one that will bring him to disaster. If only they knew Danny’s actions had set about his doom, just a day away.
The beauty of Norton’s performance comes in its purity and honesty. As the young Nazi, his hatred is real, but as the dawning happens, we can feel, even see that hatred slipping away. It is an astonishing piece of acting that with no campaigning at all, earned Norton an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, which frankly he should have won. Instead, the Academy honoured the Italian buffoon Roberto Begnini in his irresponsible Holocaust fable Life is Beautiful (1998). Considering that Norton’s performance is among the greatest performances in the history of the cinema, his loss is to the eternal shame of the Academy.
The post-production turned into a war between Norton and Director Kay, who eventually was locked out of the editing room as Norton supervised the cut of the film. There are many who would attack the actor as narcissistic, but I believe he was genuinely trying to protect the film and the performance. The two no longer speak.
Norton moved on to become one of the most important, however difficult actors of his generation, yet has never surpassed this searing performance. That smile, that chilling smile will turn your blood to ice,
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.