By Mark Betancourt
PHOTO COURTESY OF LIONS GATE FILMS
Ryan Gosling stars in "The Believer," the story of a young Jewish man pulled in by the neo-Nazi movement in his town.
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday March 6, 2003
When it comes to neo-Nazi drama, "American History X" is a hard act to follow. That film's cinematic style, its conscience and its impeccable acting make it one of the quintessential studies of the racist mind. What "The Believer" brings to the table, though, is a relatively fresh perspective.
"The Believer," coming out on DVD, is the story of Danny Balint, a young neo-Nazi activist who, unfortunately for him, is Jewish. This is revealed relatively early on, and first-time writer/director Henry Bean spends the rest of the film exploring this deep contradiction in Danny's life and psyche. Such explorations include a scene during which Danny and his skinhead cronies are rigging a bomb inside a synagogue when Danny suddenly insists that his troglodyte mates not touch the sacred Hebrew scriptures they are about to blow up.
Danny (Ryan Gosling) wanders in and out of scary fascist meetings taking place in living rooms, neo-Nazi summer camps where he learns to shoot the heads off wooden cut-outs of Jewish children, and the bedroom of an unaccountably sick young girl named Carla Moebius (Summer Phoenix). Carla is one of the film's weaker points. She likes to learn Hebrew, have sex with a guy she calls her "dad" and randomly bite Danny in the middle of their conversations. Her purpose in the film seems driven only by her increasingly voracious desire to become Jewish, which is itself difficult to explain.
This leads to the film's larger weakness. While its study of Danny's internal schism is very often thoughtful in that it
questions concepts of social behavior and the psychological origins of faith, "The Believer" gets tangled up in a too-often bizarre plot.
There's plenty to work with, given the character and the unusual circumstances in which he finds himself, so one has to wonder why Bean needs characters like Carla. By the time the film approaches its climax, Carla has gone off the deep end, Danny's Nazi pals are carrying out hits on Jewish congressmen, and one of his childhood friends from Hebrew school has uncovered an ambiguously dangerous journalistic conspiracy that has infiltrated every aspect of his life. The result is that the film has two sides ÷ an interesting one and a lame, confusing one. On the one hand, dealing with the contradictions within a deeply disturbed Nazi Jew leads to a discussion of the Jewish faith and what it means to question religion. While it's difficult on the first viewing to follow this complex dialectic, the rhetoric seems authentic enough, and one gets the sense there's a lot to be learned, or at least thought about, from this film.
On the other hand, the film's plot gets in its way. The scenes are often too surreal or just generally confusing, and the thought process gets convoluted. It begins to look as if the concept of Danny's conflicted mind is only being viewed from different angles, not deepened.
But for the most part, "The Believer" comes out ahead. It's not so hard to follow that it loses the audience completely, and its moments of weakness provide non-fatal, even welcome comic relief. As freaked out as we might be, it's got us thinking.