Believer, The (United States, 2001)September 28, 2023
When one speaks of cultural relevance, some movies capture it in the moment (oftentimes dating the production in the process). Others grasp it as if looking in a rearview mirror. But there’s a small group, either through clairvoyance or happenstance, that achieve it years or decades ahead of time. The Believer is one such film; its themes seem more relevant two decades after its release than they did when it reached theaters in 2001.
The directorial debut of Henry Bean (who wrote the screenplays for both Internal Affairs – the good – and Basic Instinct 2 – the bad) offers numerous challenging ideas but falls short when it comes to character development and motivation. The narrative is scattershot – events happen too quickly, transitions are frequently missing or truncated, and certain aspects aren’t believable. Although the movie uses flashbacks to explore why the main character, Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling), has adopted the philosophies he espouses, there’s still something missing.
Danny grew up Jewish but, as a child, he pushed back against orthodox interpretations of the Torah. As an adult, he has repudiated Judaism altogether, opting to become a neo-Nazi and partnering with 21st century fascists Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane) and Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell). Although Curtis and Lina disagree with Danny’s virulent antisemitism (they perceive fascism as an economic and political philosophy not necessarily tied to race), they are impressed by his passion and oratorical skills and believe he can be an asset to the movement. After beginning a relationship with Lina’s daughter, Carla (Summer Phoenix), who is also sleeping with Curtis, Danny exhibits conflicted emotions regarding Jewish iconography. Although he violently attacks a Jew in the streets and attempts to shoot another, he shows a fascination for the Torah and, at her request, begins to teach Carla Hebrew. Danny’s evolving conflict is evident in a bizarre scene where he combines a Nazi salute with a Hagabah.
Although The Believer does an adequate job postulating how a disaffected Jewish youth might not only repudiate his heritage but become hostile toward it, the film does not effectively flesh out Danny as a fully formed individual. Oftentimes, he appears more like a writer’s construct. The situation is exacerbated with Carla – a lifelong fascist, her sudden fascination with Judaism is inexplicable and unexplained. Her character represents one of The Believer’s biggest problems because everything about her is forced and artificial. Her motivations are as obtuse as her feelings about Danny and Curtis. When asked by Danny why she is with him while also sleeping with Curtis, she responds that the sex is better with Danny.
I was not as impressed with Ryan Gosling’s performance as were many of the contemporaneous critics who reviewed the film, although I agree that there are several scenes in which his intensity is frighteningly effective, the most notable being during a confrontation with journalist Guy Danielsen (A.D. Miles), when Danny brandishes a gun. Overall, however, I found Gosling’s acting to be uneven, but I acknowledge that this could be more the fault of the screenplay than the performer.
The movie contains one genuinely haunting and memorable scene. As part of court-mandated sensitivity training, Danny must attend a group meeting in which Holocaust survivors relate horror stories (including one man who was forced to watch as his young son was run through by a Nazi soldier’s bayonet). He reacts violently to these tales – not because of the ugliness of the incidents but because the victims didn’t fight back. It’s a key to his psychopathology but one that Bean proves unable to build upon in a clear and credible fashion.
The Believer, which his loosely based on the account of a Jewish member of the KKK, takes chances that many other films might shy from, including its refusal to offer a black-and-white condemnation of fascism as a movement and its presentation of a semi-coherent philosophy for why a Jew might express violently antisemitic views. But its strengths are counterbalanced by narrative weaknesses that pull the viewer out of the experience. It’s an interesting film for the things it does right but, by the time the end credits rolled, I couldn’t fight back a sense of frustration with its limitations and weaknesses.
Believer, The (United States, 2001)
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Billy Zane, Theresa Russell, Summer Phoenix
Home Release Date: 2023-09-28
Screenplay: Henry Bean, based on a story by Bean and Mark Jacobson
Cinematography: Jim Denault
Music: Joel Diamond
U.S. Distributor: Fireworks Pictures
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