Identity Trap

The Believers twisted never again

Like Danny, Bean prefers to pound home his message, to pummel us with one speech after another. Danny joins forces with two white supremacists named Lina Moebius and Curtis Zampf (think Kampf), played with entertaining, villainy zest by Theresa Russell and somewhat more restraint by Billy Zane. Intent on building a legitimate, aboveground fascist party, Lina and Curtis are interested in channeling Danny's charisma but are concerned that the political incorrectness of his anti-Semitism will derail their anti-globalism plans, which they hope to sell to both the extreme right and the extreme left. (Earth First! seems ripe for the plucking, says Zampf.) But even in these violent, paranoid times, Lina, Curtis and their ragtag retinue don't make very persuasive masters of their lunatic universe, or convincing threats to democracy. Then again, Bean isn't a committed realist; his mťtier is exaggeration, which sometimes tips the movie from merely outrageous to near-parodic. One of the film's most authentically eccentric conceits—and one of its most dementedly funny—is that Danny's love interest, Lina's daughter Carla (Summer Phoenix, in full-on creature mode), is more than your average, garden-variety wacko. She asks Danny to hit her before they screw, later pleads with him to teach her Hebrew, and finally seals her crazy shiksa love by soul-kissing his vomit-speckled lips.

Identity can make you nuts, but it doesn't have to leave you hopeless. In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about the peculiarities of a "double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." Du Bois' concept of "two-ness" ("two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals") speaks not just to the problem of the color line but to the problem of every one of this patchwork nation's bifurcated identities. Yet in seeming to suggest that it's Orthodox Judaism in and of itself—rather than in its dialectical relationship to the world at large—that's driven Danny insane, leaving him literally and culturally schizophrenic, Bean paints himself into a corner, leaving both the film and Danny with no exit. In the end, Bean's greater argument isn't really with the anti-Semites of the world, real or imagined; it's with Orthodox Judaism, which pulls at Danny unrelentingly, seductively. Toward the frenzied end of The Believer, after running with his racist cohorts for too many miles, Danny finally hooks up with some of his former Jewish schoolmates, and you see him, for the first time, really engage with the culture he sees as having forced him around the bend. Funny thing is, it doesn't look all that bad—to Danny, or to us.

The Believer was written and directed by Henry Bean from a story by Bean and Mark Jacobson; produced by Susan Hoffman and Christopher Roberts; and stars Ryan Gosling. Now playing at Edwards University, Irvine.

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