A cinematic sucker punch, The Believer stars the mesmerizing young actor Ryan Gosling as an Orthodox Jew turned neo-Nazi skinhead. The film, which at one point was titled A Jewish Nazi, was written and directed by Henry Bean, a smart guy who has had a hand in some choice studio pulp, including Enemy of the State, Deep Cover and Internal Affairs. The Believer is the first feature Bean has directed, which makes it all the more impressive that the film, when it premiered at Sundance in January 2001, was showered with praise and handed one of the festival's most important prizes. Still, despite the good notices, there were no bites from distributors. Eventually, the film was picked up by Showtime, where, after being scheduled to air last September, it finally debuted in March; now it's opening in theaters courtesy of Fireworks Pictures, the company that bankrolled the film. The point of this tangled history is that over the past year and a half, since it first hit, the film has become something of a cause célèbre. That no distributor stepped forward to release the film—despite the fact that it had been loved at Sundance, despite the fact that it won the Grand Jury award for Best Dramatic Feature there—was widely reported, in the months following the festival, with a measure of despair and indignation.
Anyone familiar with the dire straits of American film distribution shouldn't have been shocked that no one wanted to chance a digitally shot feature about a Jewish Nazi. And as it turns out, The Believer looks great on television. Jim Denault's camera work, much of it hand-held and impeccably framed, gives the film a running-fast, documentary aesthetic that dovetails with its running-scared vibe. You get a dose of the film's panic-in-the-streets jitters right off, when Gosling's Danny Balint beats up a Jewish student he has followed off a subway car. Spittle flying, Danny hectors the student ("Yeshiva bocher!"), but when he invites his victim to fight, the words sound less like a bully's taunt than a desperate entreaty. As the student curls on the ground, hands extended defensively, Danny works himself into a lathering rage, kicking the boy again and again. It's terrifying, but it's also hypnotic. You can't take your eyes off Gosling—whose hard focus and spring-loaded physicality echo the De Niro of Mean Streets—and neither can Bean, who doesn't show much interest in the student as he gets the shit kicked out of him. It's easy to see why, not only because Gosling is such a charismatic presence, but also because, as one character later says to another about fascism, "It's a romantic movement—it always has been."
Danny beats the student not because his victim is Jewish, but because the student is the Jew Who Doesn't Fight Back, the Jew who, he believes, accepts, even welcomes his destiny as history's victim. In turn, Danny—haunted by the Holocaust—has tried to erase the Jew that he fears lies within, the eternal victim, by becoming the ultimate tough Jew: the Jew Who Fights, even kills, the Nazi Jew. Swaggering about New York in red suspenders, romper-stomper boots and a swastika tee, Danny looks, well, cooler, certainly scarier, than the student, with his black-rimmed glasses, kippah and sweaty fear; even the two black teens he shoves aside in a subway stairwell leave this rampaging neo-Bernie Goetz alone. Still, Doc Martens and white laces do not make the skinhead, and although Danny talks the talk, he can't fully walk the walk. He winces when some of his fellow thugs desecrate a Torah and, while listening to an old man testify to Nazi atrocity, holds back a tear that trembles at the edge of his eyelid, threatening to betray him to the survivor, to the skins, to himself. Danny may tell everyone who'll listen, from armchair fascists to a New York Times reporter, that he hates Jews, but no matter how often he rolls the National Socialist swill around in his mouth, he can't quite seem to swallow it. The trouble is, neither can we.
The Believer is smart enough that you wish it were better; it's crude agitprop, Sam Fuller polemics without Sam Fuller poetics. After its electric opening—one of the few occasions when Bean advances his case cinematically, showing rather than just telling—the film rapidly assumes the shape of a 100-minute debate, as Danny argues against the Jews and, in the same breath, for them. Gosling spits invective with ferocity, but he's a straw man—you never buy his anti-Semitism. It's a wonder any of the other characters do. When Danny tries to prevent other skins from touching a Torah, it's unbelievable that they don't suspect something is up. His argument is that a real hater, an Eichmann, studies his enemies so he knows why he hates them. But because this rationale comes in a vacuum, it's meaningless. Danny may have done his homework in religious school, but Bean himself doesn't bother to show how or why anyone—this stupid, heartbreak kid included—finds solace in a community of faith such as Orthodox Judaism. We see why Danny likes hanging with skinheads: they're tough, violent, murderously fascinating, and they have this neat hideout where they blow shit up. But other than an awkward, oft-repeated flashback in which a young Danny argues the meaning of Abraham and Isaac (which the Nietzschean squirt insists proves God is the ultimate bully), the film offers little real foundation for either his love or his hate.