American History X plunges headlong into the racial divide that is one of the country's most troubling legacies as we reach the end of the 20th century. This slickly photographed movie pushes some volatile buttons in telling the story of an articulate, charismatic, young neo-Nazi skinhead, and wields undeniable power despite its shaky dramatic contrivances. Outspoken first-time feature director Tony Kaye, a veteran commercials helmer who has loudly protested this cut of the film, may or may not have been able to correct its flaws, but it remains an unusually gutsy and topical picture, with a gripping star performance by the gifted Edward Norton.

Norton plays Derek Vinyard, a blue-collar kid in Venice, California, whose outlook changes after his fireman father is murdered while fighting a blaze at a crackhouse. Derek falls under the influence of Cameron (Stacy Keach), a white supremacist, and becomes a leader of the area's skinheads. The young extremist lands in prison for the brutal killing of some black delinquents who break into his car one night; after serving a three-year sentence, he returns to his neighborhood a profoundly changed man. But history appears poised to repeat itself: His impressionable younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) has fallen in with Cameron and his disciples.

The most unsettling aspect of American History X is its depiction of Derek as an exceptionally bright spokesperson for a hate-fueled subculture. In debates with his liberal sister (Jennifer Lien), his sickly mother (Beverly D'Angelo) and her soft-spoken Jewish boyfriend (Elliott Gould), Derek deftly argues his case against Rodney King, California immigrants, and the general decline of American society. So smooth is he that it's doubly shocking to watch him put his beliefs into practice, whether terrorizing the non-white clerks at a convenience store or brutally finishing off one of the unfortunate black kids who tried to rip off his car. Screenwriter David McKenna has a hard time, however, reconciling this Derek with the enlightened man who emerges from prison three years later-a traumatic shower-room rape and the kindness of a funny black laundry-room co-worker (Guy Torry) aren't enough to explain Derek's 180-degree transition. Throughout, American History X is stronger on visceral, visual storytelling than it is on character development. Apart from Derek, the protagonists tend to be one-dimensional and to spout platitudes, and even Derek is less multi-faceted than double-sided.

Buffed up into a disturbing poster boy for fascism, Norton works wonders with what ought to be an impossible role, showing how psychological hurt can lead someone of intelligence and potential down a dark path. Edward Furlong (Terminator 2, Pecker) has a more limited range, but his taciturn vulnerability is just right for the part of the malleable younger brother. D'Angelo is heartbreaking as their well-meaning but ineffectual mother, and Keach makes a memorably sleazy hate merchant. As a black high-school teacher toiling to save the souls of the Vinyard boys, Avery Brooks brings a curious pomposity to what should have been the movie's most admirable character.

Acting as his own cinematographer, Kaye alternates between color sequences for the present and striking black-and-white for the past, which is recounted through the awkward framing device of a school paper Danny is writing about his brother's odyssey. The filmmaking is undeniably effective, but sometimes too slick for the painful situations Kaye is portraying. American History X is a potent but glib sociology lesson for the moviegoing masses.

--Kevin Lally