2001, R, 100 min. Directed by Henry Bean. Starring Ryan Gosling, Theresa Russell, Summer Phoenix, Billy Zane.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., July 5, 2002
Danny Balint is an unfathomable contradiction: he is a fiercely anti-Semitic neo-Nazi, and he is also a Jew. Unlike the blind rage of his skinhead colleagues, Danny's hatred isn't borne of crude ignorance. Fluent in Hebrew and expert in the Torah's teachings, this charismatic and intelligent young man truly knows his professed enemy. But no matter how many acts of violence he commits against Jews or how many words of unspeakable malice he utters about them, he cannot escape the fact of his Jewish identity. And, that inescapable truth is his torment. The Believer, which was inspired by true events, is a disturbing, provocative film about the psychology of hate that appreciates Danny's paradox as one that defies easy explanation. Several reasons are offered -- his belief that “the modern world is a Jewish disease”; his anger about Jewish passivity during times of oppression; his theological questioning of God's purpose and meaning -- but, in the end, the question of “why?” is unanswerable. What is evident, however, are the conflicting emotions that Danny experiences when the things he has taught himself to despise so fervently begin to take root again in his heart and mind. This conflict begins to take form when Danny hears (as part of a court-mandated sensitivity training he attends after an arrest) an elderly Holocaust survivor tell a horrific story about a Nazi soldier's atrocity. The mental image of the soldier's murderous act triggers polar reactions in Danny -- does he empathize with the perpetrator or the victim in the story? From there, The Believer becomes even more engrossing, despite weak subplots involving a fascist organization's courtship of Danny and his relationship with an emotionally damaged young woman fixated on Judaism. To his credit, director/screenwriter Bean eschews sensationalizing Danny's situation, maintaining an intellectual honesty in dealing with the film's central character. But the film's greatest strength undeniably lies in Gosling's revelatory portrayal of Danny. Gosling (Murder by Numbers, Remember the Titans) gives Danny's fury a voice that is frightening and mesmerizing, both in its articulation and its intensity. His performance is uncannily like a laser: direct, clear, focused. (At times, Gosling reminds you of a young De Niro, but there's no emulation or mimicry involved here.) Long after The Believer is over, you'll find Gosling's characterization difficult to shake from your mind. If there's any justice, this guy should be the next big thing.