The modern neo-Nazi skinhead pseudo-docudrama may be one of the tiniest cinematic sub-genres, second only to Frank Darabont adaptations of Stephen King prison novellas, but one element holds constant in all of them: the unnervingly charismatic figure at its center. At first blush, Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling), the titular protagonist of screenwriter Henry Bean’s directorial debut, The Believer, appears to be cut from the same hateful cloth as the characters portrayed by Russell Crowe in Romper Stomper and (especially) Edward Norton in American History X – young, scarily articulate, and filled with a violent rage that the film wastes no time in demonstrating. But there’s a difference here, and it’s a crucial one: this shaven-headed thug, first seen tormenting and beating a young Talmudic scholar on a New York street, is himself an Orthodox Jew. Attention, all entrants in the Self-Loathing Semite sweepstakes: no more calls, please, we have a winner.
It’s this seemingly irreconcilable contradiction, one that’s difficult to swallow even if it is based on fact (Bean’s inspiration came from a 1965 New York Times article about a member of the American Nazi Party, Daniel Burros, who committed suicide after his Judaic background was revealed in print), that provides the motor for a gripping exploration of the struggles surrounding belief that manages to be provocative without stooping to Romper Stomper’s exploitation-film glorification or American History X’s simplistic melodrama. Following the film’s brutal (but non-graphic) opening, Balint next turns up at a neo-fascist meeting at the home of Nina Moebius (Theresa Russell), where he dismantles the rather silly notions of “reasonable fascism” espoused by the movement’s leader, Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane), rousing the assembled with virulent anti-Semitic sentiments as passionate and informed as they are ugly. His is the kind of dark magnetism that can’t help but attract all that surround him; in short order, Zampf enlists him as a potential mouthpiece and recruiting tool, Moebius’ daughter Carla (Summer Phoenix) becomes his lover and admirer, and a Times reporter, working incognito, ferrets out his background and confronts him with it in a subsequent interview (Bean covers this angle with a pleasingly light touch, capturing the journalist’s twin roles as truth-seeker and headline-hungry opportunist without hammering it to death), each of which contribute in their way to Balint’s fateful struggle with his own identity crisis.
A series of flashbacks to his days as a precocious, volatile 12-year-old yeshiva student make the struggle plain: he challenges his teacher, calling God’s treatment of Abraham the work of a “power-hungry madman” rather than a test of faith, an opinion that gets him thrown out of school. He turns, violently, against the temple, but it’s the kind of hatred that perhaps only the truly devout can understand. Though he knows that it can only lead him into deep trouble, he can’t help but pick at the weaknesses of both the members of his given faith and his partners in hate crime, tearing into an elderly Holocaust survivor for not attacking the Gestapo officer that bayoneted his infant son before his eyes and then turning around and chastising his fellow skinheads for not understanding the importance of the Torah.
Before long, Danny has backed himself into a corner, his impulses to both destroy and protect his people feeding symbiotically on each other. To save face among the skinheads, he must make good on his vows to kill a Jew or bomb a synagogue, but his innate devotion keeps getting in the way; he begins teaching a fascinated Carla some of the rituals of his faith and even regales a startled gathering of neo-fascist zealots with a Hebrew prayer and the demand that, to destroy the Jews, they must embrace them. Shunned by his ultra-right-wing brethren and implicated in the murder of a prominent Jew (portrayed by Bean himself), Balint finds himself compelled to commit a final, desperate act of redemption, one that satisfies both the Jew and the Jew-hater within him.
This film has been the subject of a minor (you will pardon the expression) furor when, in spite of winning the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, no studio would touch it with a ten-foot marketing campaign, leaving Showtime to swoop in and save it from oblivion as it has Adrian Lyne’s Lolita and Angelica Huston’s Bastard Out of Carolina before it. It’d be a lot easier to cluck in outrage at the major studio’s timidity and cowardice if The Believer didn’t play so much like, well, a Showtime movie. This is one of those films with the kind of handheld camerawork that plays as immediate and exciting on a TV screen, but would more likely induce nausea in a multiplex (is there a such thing as “horizontigo”?). The secondary characters are perfunctorily drawn (Carla, for example, has a masochistic streak; we only know this because practically her first words to Danny are “Hit me”), and other than the gripping Gosling (whose avian surname is rather apt, his delicately angular features giving him the predatory but vulnerable look of a baby bird of prey), the performers are almost too low-key to register strongly. (Even Russell and Zane, whose presence in certain other pictures was almost enough to make this writer renounce his own faith, leave very few bite marks on the scenery.)
In fact, apart from a couple of cursory nods in the direction of slo-mo fight sequences and voyeuristic sex scenes, there’s very little here that resembles entertainment as we Americans have come to expect it. Without exception, the most powerful scenes here are all verbal, all confrontational, an approach that flat out would not work if Bean hadn’t stumbled on a subject that all but guarantees high tension in spite of itself. The Believer’s ninety-eight minutes just rush by, borne on a current of hot-button topicality (not that neo-Nazis have necessarily done anything of note lately; something about them screams “ripped from today’s headlines” even though the story this is based on is almost four decades old) and sheer dramaturgical tension, meaning you’re equally invested in whether the main character finds a satisfying way to reconcile the contradictory impulses in his soul and whether Bean manages to do the same with his screenplay. And the answer is, strangely enough, yes; The Believer culminates in a denouement that, irrational and even nutty as it is, gives Danny Balint a chance to play savior, persecutor and martyr all at once, followed by a bleak coda that strongly belies any sense of resolution, in both the character and the audience. The Believer is indeed provocative and challenging, but not in the way you expect; Henry Bean has made a picture that is less an examination of neo-Nazism than a probe into the nature of faith itself.
– William Ham