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The Believer (R)
Fireworks Pictures
Official Site
Director: Henry Bean
Producers: Susan Hoffman, Christopher Roberts
Writer: Henry Bean
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Billy Zane, Theresa Russell, Summer Phoenix

Rating: out of 5

When we first see the character of Danny Balint (Gosling) he’s coolly stalking a young Hasidic student on a New York subway. We’ve already noticed his crisply shaved dome and seen his bright red swastika shirt, so when he attacks we’re not surprised. After beating his prey to the ground he tauntingly pleads with him to fight back. Later we learn that Danny is actually a Jew himself.

When this seemingly impossible contradiction is brought up to him by a reporter who infiltrated a fascist meeting where Danny had eloquently suggested a plot to start randomly killing Jews, Danny reacts violently, pulling out a gun and threatening to kill himself if the reporter publishes his story. It’s not that he really identifies with the thuggish skinheads he pals around with, but rather that he is so ashamed by what he sees as the cowardice of his people, that his self-loathing necessitates such a persona.

We see flashbacks of a young Danny quarreling with his religious instructor over the story of Abraham and Isaac. Danny, who views this tale as proof of God’s cruelty, is furious with what he sees as the Jews’ inherent nihilism. And although he claims to only want to kill Jews (which he believes is the secret desire of all whites), it seems that he also hopes that a wave of violence might shake the Jews out of their deadening routines. None of this is completely clear to Danny or the audience; he shrinks from his angry rhetoric when the action becomes too intense, but can’t explain why and the movie never does. Perhaps there are no consistent explanations for someone who can give the Nazi salute and nonetheless revere the Torah.

While the film’s ambiguity regarding its main character’s tantalizing pathology is oddly fulfilling, the rest of the film is really quite clumsy. Bean seems to have no idea how to build tension and so consequently anytime action is required the movie falls flat. Worst of all are the black-and-white fantasy scenes which embarrassingly try to illustrate Danny’s paradoxes. In terms of visual imagination Henry Bean is closer to a Kevin Smith than a Fellini. And whereas Danny’s peculiarities are thoroughly investigated, some other characters are hardly developed at all, particularly the character of fascist guru Lina Moebius’ (Russell) daughter, Carla (Phoenix). She loves him, she’s a masochist, and eventually she turns into a Jew, and I have no idea why. I can only assume she’s there to further expose Danny’s beliefs. Of course you could see the character of Danny as simply a vessel for the polemical debates that are really the highlight of the film.

Loosely based on a true story, The Believer is the ambitious first film directed by screenwriter Henry Bean (Enemy Of The State). It won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2001 and has garnered much acclaim for lead actor Gosling (a graduate of the same Mickey Mouse Club that gave us Britney), who does well with a juicy role.

—Ted Rholes


hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

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