From Primal Fear to Fight Club, no other actor had an opening run of award worthy performances in their six first films like Edward Norton. By the turn of millennium he was considered “the greatest actor of his generation” due to his electric screen presence, uncanny instinct for selecting projects and the fact he hadn’t crept up on us through a series of teen fluff or smaller roles before becoming a lead. Unlike Joaquin Phoenix, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christian Bale, Philip Seymour Hoffman or Matt Damon he hadn’t floated around for a decade previously in the ilk of Space Camp, Critters 3, Newsies, Twister or School Ties paying his dues. He came fully formed and pre-packaged as someone who stole the film out from under the top billed name you recognised. Then once he actually was an A-Lister, things abruptly went skew whiff. He struggled to find projects that matched his reputation. Death To Smoochy, The Painted Veil, The Bourne Legacy and nearly everything he has starred in has reeked of underwhelming compromise. His career has been littered with rumours that he is trouble on set, a perfectionist who takes over projects. Seemingly people and studios rarely want to work with him a second time. His one sop to a mainstream career, starring in The Incredible Hulk, ended with him being replaced in future mega-successful franchise entries despite all accounts that he is the best thing in it and shaped all the successful elements in the script without credit. His Academy Award nominated supporting turn in Birdman – as the runaway talent who hijacks the play – is winkingly based around his own “difficult” legacy. The last decade has seen his most notable screen appearances as a straight man in Wes Anderson confections, a surprise cameo near the end of Alita: Battle Angel (serving as a cliffhanger for a sequel that might never be made) and starring / directing in Motherless Brooklyn (an adaptation of a novel he would have been perfect casting for at the height of his ascendancy but he sat on the rights for 15 years too long). He’s a brilliant screen presence whom more directors should take the risk to exploit, and not just for character actor work. When he stars in the right project I bet he could still match the tyro who dazzled us all in Rounders and Fight Club back at the start. So he’s a pain in the arse for the producers… as much as Joaquin or Jared Leto?
Let’s deep dive into some of the landmarks of his career.
American History X (1998)
Tony Kaye directs Edward Norton, Edward Furlong and Beverly D’Angelo in this drama where a young skinhead awaits his neo-nazi brother’s release from prison only to learn his role model’s outlook has changed after a life of misdirected racist violence.
This felt like the hard hitting apex of American cinema back when I was in my early twenties. A bristling, macho showcase for Norton who convinces as Derek Vineyard – his finest work. Unforgettable both as the zealous agent of hate, hardbody emblazoned with swastikas, and the soulful rehabilitated young man facing up to his regrets and legacy on his first day of freedom. Now, on reappraisal it is undeniably an impactful work but a bit piecemeal in its structure and irritatingly more convincing in it sequences showing us the seductive thrall of extreme right wing bigotry. Very rarely is there a scene that doesn’t have some neat visual allegory melted over its high drama. There’s no doubt that Kaye lenses the lengthy flashbacks to Derek Vineyard’s days as head skin with the same rich and alluring flair he put into iconic Guinness and tire commercials in the 1990s. Not many movies accurately and explicitly essay the rhetoric and attraction of white racism on developing, lost boys. And there is a place for that to be investigated in mainstream cinema… I’d even say that this is about as intelligent and well crafted an exploration of white extremism we could ever hope for from La-la land. Yet American History X does seem at its most comfortable in the sequences that celebrate and mythologise Derek’s hate crimes and miseducation. The later scenes when he integrates and questions the creed he ruined his life over don’t have the same snap and conviction… the shock ending is a particularly muddy moment to close up shop on.
There’s a definite risk that the most imprinting moments of American History X can be removed from its entire context and liberal intentions and viewed as a celebration of White Power violence. The initial shooting and assault on black youths takes great pains to show the criminality of the victims and the legal justification of Derek. They are armed and trespassing, later it is revealed this isn’t an opportunistic car theft done merely for financial gain. We are introduced to Derek fucking. His white skin and disturbing ink lingered on in close ups with pornographic relish. Up and armed, his movements and resolution are framed as heroic. A protector from invaders, his actions controlled and purposeful. A racist kid or MAGA red hat will be creaming in their pants as Derek takes down the blacks… who cares what the ultimate message is, hey? But white liberals also get to joyride around in scenarios and fantasies that they wouldn’t dare talk of out loud in polite company. Like Falling Down, American History X’s most powerful scenes allow whites who do not even consider themselves racist to cosplay in the skin of a mighty bigot, reasserting eroding Caucasian privileges with manifest strength and witty elan. Forbidden slurs are common place, the action has the same visual language as Sly destroying the commies or Seagal the Yardies. Wrapped up in a rushed closing act that reaffirms racism is bad, so just don’t do it in real life, MKay! The irony is (and one seemingly only Spike Lee understands in Hollywood) is everyone is racist. It is the not acting on such base thinking, not exploiting the power your particular tribe has over others, is the only way forward for a cohesive society. Empty gestures like Hands Across America won’t cut it. You have to view racism as human, insidious and commonplace if you want to deal with it effectively. Suggesting it is some extreme outlier only practiced by the freaks of society is disingenuous. In one of the film’s best scenes the boys’ father is remembered extolling a more familiar, less clear cut mode of racist thinking over the dinner table. This complicated monologue should be the moment that is most troubling for white viewers. As it should ring home more clearly than crisp delusions of half naked honkies towering over defeated gangbangers and immigrant workers.
Which is why the edit of American History X is so interesting. Kaye lost artistic control of the final cut to Norton who reinserted 20 minutes of scenes of himself reconnecting with his family. The director very publicly wanted to disown the release and be credited as Humpty Dumpty on his debut feature. Fearing his masterwork had become a vanity piece of lovey-dovey prima donna who wanted more hugging and crying. But these scrappier, intimate handheld scenes (which have the feel of the ensemble rehearsing or improvising) add a bit of emotional texture and humanity to a film that would otherwise be non-stop illicit prejudice and heavy handed tragedies. There’s no denying the overwrought intoxication of watching the far right win a basketball game or Derek getting prison raped by a train of his own kind. The moments are overwhelmed with baroque classical scores and monochrome imagery that is near fantastical in its ironic beauty. Just look at the Cocteau worthy shot where a bleeding and violated Derek is consumed by the steam of the shower room floor like a puff of magic cloud. Yet the few interludes of the reunited family cautiously reforming and taking stock actually stop the entire exercise from feeling like a didactic two hour advert. Norton’s muscular turn is obviously the stand out, it is HIS movie, but Furlong carries a lot of weight sweetly and effectively too. Ethan Suplee is particularly memorable as a grotesque and comical fanatic who hero worship’s the left-in-the-past Derek a little too ardently. While time has exposed the flaws more readily, American History X remains a scorching piece of filmmaking and an arguably fascinating foretelling of Trumpian attitudes in the U.S.A..
The Score (2000)
Frank Oz directs Robert De Niro, Edward Norton and Marlon Brando in this crime caper movie where a cautious safe cracker is enticed into a risky heist by the unpredictable inside man and his ageing fence.
Marlon Brando’s last movie – he behaved awfully here, refusing to be directed by Franz Oz so that De Niro had to relay instructions via an earpiece, wandering around the set naked when he was too hot and refusing to smile for the smile dependant final shot. They edited in a smile on his face digitally for the release. You have to wonder what lessons Norton learnt from the troubled shoot; what a great like Marlon can get away with, the above and beyond professionalism of De Niro to step in when a shoot goes off the rails… or the fact that two acting legends (of the rare standard he was then being appraised at) could end up in such unmemorable, rote product. There’s nothing particularly wrong with The Score, it fills a Thursday night with very little originality and very few glaring mistakes. You’d almost give it a pass if it didn’t end abruptly just where most thrillers might ramp up the stakes another few notches. I’d say this particular triumvirate of generational talents promise a lot more than the flat, clean product delivers. Maybe it would have been better with the original, slightly less prestigious cast of Michael Douglas, Ben Affleck and, for argument’s sake, Christopher Walken in the Brando part. As it stands, Norton is the only one who brings more than the script gives him. Playing the dual roles of the hungry upstart and his cover identity of the custom house’s mentally challenged custodian. In a movie that takes no other risks, his ‘Brian’ is a cutely comical collection of twitches and catchphrases. Politically correct? No. Convincing? Only in a movie released in the year 2000 sense of the portrayal. An actor putting in overtime to make a conceit work? Charmingly so.
Keeping The Faith (2001)
Edward Norton directs himself, Ben Stiller and Jenna Elfman in this romantic comedy where a Catholic priest and his rabbi best friend fall for the same childhood sweetheart.
A soufflé that is probably 45 minutes too long. What would you lose though? The stellar support work from legends Eli Wallach and Anne Bancroft? Definitely not. The witty moments of framing that have the feel of Billy Wilder and Nora Ephron? Not on your life. There’s lots of fine stuff here… just too much of it. Elfman is tops as the object of both leads affections. We know dog collared Norton can’t get the girl but Stiller is too abrasive a presence for us to really root for him as a straight leading man. Possibly the cool rabbi and priest shots are a bit over indulged… though treating the congregations like a HBO comedy showcase has some solid punchlines. If you are in the right mood, this hits the spot.
25th Hour (2002)
Spike Lee directs Edward Norton, Barry Pepper and Philip Seymour Hoffman in this drama where a convicted drug dealer spends his last day before his incarceration saying goodbye to friends.
Another movie that pivots around the fact that Norton would be absolute snack for the rapists in Cell Block B! This is the unsung high point in a lot of actors’ careers; Brian Cox, Barry Pepper, Anna Paquin, Rosario Dawson, and that guy from The Wire who says ‘Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeee-it!’ all the time, put in heartfelt work. Spike uses the noir drama as a Trojan Horse to look at white America and a wounded New York in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. His camera lingers on the World Trade Centre wreckage site as it is cleared at night, almost resembling a lunar desert, the imagery so loaded with unprocessed trauma the film literally blacks out for an extended series of beats before returning to its white boy with white boy problems. There are two virtuoso sequences here, both monologues over montages. Monty Brogan’s self pitying racist tirade into the mirror at all the clans of New York, that impassioned FUCK YOU! cleaving more and more closer to home with each new target. And Brian Cox’s loving but fallible father driving his son upstate, to a life obliterating prison sentence, offering a fantasy of escape where Monty and America work to be rehabilitated and exorcised of their shared sins. Whether partying hard or sharing a combative final goodbye this is A-Grade, emotionally mature, politically nuanced entertainment. And I can guarantee you Norton wasn’t a overbearing pain in Spike’s arse on this particular shoot! Haunting score by Terence Blanchard.
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Louis Leterrier directs Edward Norton, Tim Roth and Liv Tyler in this superhero reboot of the Hulk story where an on the run scientist tries to stop his gamma radiated DNA from mutating him into a green behemoth when he gets angry.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the forgotten man of the Marvel franchise. The Bourne inspired first act in Brazil is exactly what I want from a reimagining of the Seventies TV series with Lou Ferrigno. The two big, meaty action and FX set pieces are one-on-one brawls where the stakes escalate logically and thrillingly. Such a shame there’s forty minutes of spot running filler in between them. Nothing really happens when Tim Roth’s super soldier upgrades into The Abomination for far too much of the game time. Then a plethora of colourful carnage. Norton is solid as Banner, curiously a little fey at times. It makes for a pleasant afternoon filler. The most workable aspects of this were abandoned when Mark Ruffalo took over the role… he’s perfect in the part but it is a shame these dangling plot threads have never been resolved twenty entries later.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)
Alejandro G. Iñárritu directs Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone in this dark comedy where a former superhero movie star tries to self produce a serious Raymond Carver play on the Broadway stage that erodes his sanity.
Still holds up on rewatch as a bleakly hilarious, technically outstanding blast. Keaton leans into being tracked almost relentlessly by Iñárritu’s stalking camera, we feels every disgrace and moment of suicidal doubt he stumbles through. Much of the comedy is watching the jarring but intertwined worlds of Hollywood fame and Broadway acclaim posture against each other. This is a very self aware, self lacerating film. It is hard to tell who is more game at skewering their self image. Keaton or Norton? The female support are all exceptional, with Emma Stone who is playing against type, a particular revelation. Antonio Sánchez’ jazzy and hectoring percussion based score matches the mania and pace of this farce. The Times Square location work is seamlessly convincing and oppressive. Laugh out loud funny, nastily cynical, my kinda jam.
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We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here https://letterboxd.com/bobbycarroll/list/the-worst-movies-we-own-podcast-ranking-and/