The Believer Movie Review
Controversy has engulfed "The Believer" since its premiere at last year's Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize but still couldn't find a distributor because it's a frank and frightful portrayal of an angry young Jew who hates his own heritage so much he becomes a neo-Nazi.
An intense examination of faith and a challenge to the notion of blind faith, it has been misunderstood by filmgoers who can't stomach being inside the head of Danny Balint (played by "Murder by Numbers" killer Ryan Gosling). That is certainly understandable -- it's an ugly place full of intolerance and self-loathing.
The film has also been criticized over the possibility that it might find an audience among hate groups who may hear Danny's articulate, even well-argued malevolence and not see that in his obsession he's discovered a new, more profound (if twisted) devotion to his congenital creed.
But once you take a good look around in Danny's psyche, you discover -- along with the character himself -- that his vicious animosity is a complex dogma all his own, built around what he sees as a collective Jewish willingness to be victimized. From flashbacks of a 12-year-old Danny arguing with a rabbi about God's test of Abraham ("It's not about Abraham's faith! It's about God's power...He's a conceited bully.") to beating up a Jewish student underneath an elevated train station, Danny has been trying to find an outlet for what he feels should be a collective Jewish rage.
"Hit me! Hit me!" he screams at the kid he knocks down, genuinely wanting a Jew to beat up a skinhead -- even if it's him. Especially if it's him. Later when confronted by a room full of Holocaust survivors, he berates them for not fighting back against their captors.
In expressing Danny's inner turmoil, Gosling gives a remarkable performance that at times encompasses simultaneous hate and devotion. While vandalizing a synagogue with a group of skinhead grunts, he steers them clear of sacred items and reads from the Torah, to the dismayed shock of his companions, whom he then castigates for not knowing anything about the people they're supposed to hate. While speaking at an underground rally organized by ominously intellectual yuppie fascists (Theresa Russell and Billy Zane) who have taken him under their wing, he espouses embracing the Jewish people.
"The worse the Jews are hated, the stronger they become," he declares shortly before being shown the door. "Auschwitz created Israel."
Danny's ideology becomes chaotic as his Jewish faith beings to reassert itself. In part this is because he's being hounded by a New York Times reporter who knows he's been hiding his heritage from the skinheads and the fascists. In part it's due to the curiosity of Russell's sensuous teenage daughter (Summer Phoenix) who, fascinated by Danny's brooding intellect, discovers his secret and insists on learning Hebrew traditions as her own form of rebellion. But this growing chaos leads Danny toward lashing out one more time in the most violent way he can imagine to reassert his hatred.
Written and directed by Henry Bean, a self-described conservative Jew who based the story on a real-life Jewish neo-Nazi who killed himself when he was exposed, "The Believer" hits a few false notes when it goes to extremes that have nothing to do with religion or politics just to maintain the edge of intensity. (The girl kisses Danny right after he throws up in one scene. I guess that's supposed to prove her strange fidelity, but it only served to gross me out.)
But while it's a hard movie to watch and very well may be misinterpreted by hate-mongers whose ignorance precludes their understanding of its true meaning (assuming they even bother to see it), "The Believer" is ultimately a penetrating, potent exploration of sanctimony, self-awareness, self-hatred and self-determination.