THE BELIEVER is the directing debut of Henry Bean, a successful screenwriter who’s written ENEMY OF THE STATE, DEEP COVER and INTERNAL AFFAIRS, among other big Hollywood movies. While it’s about a fascinating character, made mesmerizing by the superb performance of Ryan Gosling, the movie falters in its exploration of this complex psyche.
Based on the true story of a Ku Klux Klan demonstrator who was unmasked as a Jew and then committed suicide, THE BELIEVER explores the world of Daniel Balint. Danny (Gosling) is a neo-Nazi skinhead who pummels a poor Jewish student in the opening scene and taunts him in Hebrew! The audience quickly realizes this is no standard uneducated venom-filled skinhead, but a well educated, intelligent . . . Jew. What makes Danny hate his race and where that hatred takes him is the story this movie tries to tell.
THE BELIEVER is hard to watch, because it is filled with both the rhetoric and the actions of someone driven by hatred. It argues that Danny was a brilliant but difficult yeshiva student who found the portrait of God in the old Testament to be that of a bully. He argues his case so well, that he’s kicked out of yeshiva. Instead of becoming a hardened atheist as most embittered students of religion do, Danny becomes enraged at the impotence of his own race. As punishment for one of his many anti-Semitic outbursts, Danny is forced to sit and listen to the stories of Holocaust survivors. Instead of being softened or disbelieving, as are his compatriots, Danny becomes angry. “Why? Why did you sit there and do nothing while your son was being killed?” Danny spits out at a poor old man.
Danny becomes involved with a fascist organization run by a couple (Theresa Russell and Billy Zane) who want to use him to raise funds and the profile of their organization, but Danny’s too unpredictable and angry. He becomes involved with their daughter Carla (Summer Phoenix), who’s about as unstable as he is. She asks him to hit her before they go to bed and runs to kiss him after he’s vomited.
Danny is truly of two minds. He becomes protective of the Torah as he and some of his thugs desecrate a Temple. He teaches his girlfriend Hebrew while planning to kill his first Jew. Danny’s bizarre logic and irrationality are made to sizzle by the fine performance of Gosling, and even the grainy, digital, handheld cinematography. Viewers, however, are left confused. Why does he tape the Torah back together secretly in his apartment and discuss the Jewish life with reverence, that even his girlfriend observes “only a Jew is so obsessed,” but, all the while he wants to destroy the Jewish race?
The argument that Bean proffers, that Danny hates the way the Jewish people accepts their own victimization, doesn’t explain why he wants to victimize them again. The script doesn’t fully explain it. The movie moves from searing scene to searing scene without fully developing or explaining this character. The ending comes without foreshadowing and adds to the feeling of disconnection. The film feels episodic, and isn’t cohesive.
When a movie offers a confusing portrait or doesn’t have much to say, sometimes the journey is enjoyable anyway, but, given the stomach churning violence, hate-filled invective, and immorality in THE BELIEVER, you may want to pass on this one.
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SUMMARY: THE BELIEVER explores the world of Daniel Balint, a neo-Nazi skinhead who happens to be Jewish. THE BELIEVER moves from searing scene to searing scene without fully developing or explaining this character and contains hate-filled invective and sexual immorality.
(H, AbAb, B, LL, VV, SS, NN, A, MM) Humanist worldview of a conflicted self-hating Jew, who joins a neo-Nazi group, with references to Judaism; 10 obscenities and vomiting; one scene of man kicking another man, one scene of two men fighting, and one scene of man being shot; implied and depicted fornication, including incest of naked woman with her stepfather; alcohol use; no smoking; and, hatred, vandalism and desecration of a religious building.