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Category:    Home > Reviews > Drama > Hate Crimes > Believer, The

The Believer


Picture: B     Sound: B-     Extras: C+     Film: B+



One of the most powerful films of 2001 you likely missed is writer/director Henry Bean’s The Believer, a stunning independent film with Ryan Gosling breaking through as the title character.  He is Danny, a Jewish teen who has shockingly become a Neo Nazi skinhead!  As outrageous as this first sounds, it turns out to be based on a true story or two, and oddly is more common than you could ever imagine.


How could something so contradictory occur?  Well, besides the possibility of paradox, which the film and this critic will not claim, it is about the ultimate expression of conflicted identity.  Danny was a very clever student of Judaism, when the answers he got were not making him very happy.  This led to this rebellion, which can only work by him having a double life.  This is not to say he is still practicing Judaism, but it seems to haunt his actions in his case, not mater how violent he gets.


Things get even more interesting when he gets involved with a pro-Fascism couple, played extremely well by Theresa Russell and Billy Zane, two of our most underrated actors of all.  They are trying to find a new way to promote Fascism, now that “going after the Jews won’t fly anymore”.  Danny still has his skinhead friends, which leads to him meeting more such friends, and a number of equally wacky ones.  He also gets involved with her daughter (Summer Phoenix), who happens to be sleeping with Zane’s character too!


The most recent immediate films that come to mind, what few have been made on the subject, are Geoffrey Wright’s Romper Stomper (1992), which helped launch Russell Crowe’s career, and Tony Kaye’s American History X (1998), which got Edward Norton an Academy Award nomination.  To be blunt, Gosling could go a few rounds with these guys in what he achieves here.  All three are very convincing performances, but Gosling gets deeper into his characterization in a way that breaks the formula way to play such a character.  Though Crowe was starkly believable, maybe too much so for those who did not know him then, the actual film was so limited that it seemed to glorify the world it was supposedly exploring.  It did suspiciously well when the expensive VHS came out in the U.S. and it sold unusually well for a film with virtually no promotion.


Kaye actually sued New Line over his film, saying it was not the cut he wanted, though later dropped the suit.  If the film did not work, it is because he took on more than he was capable of, but the film fares better than Crowe’s.  At least Kaye is ambitious.  However, though based on real life, there is an aspect of The Believer that is almost out of The Twilight Zone.  Skinhead gets suddenly converted into Jewish person.


Serling would constantly do things like this to make us face our hatreds and prejudices brilliantly from his classic TV series, to the likes of the 1968 Planet of the Apes and some of his dramas.  Here, real life has substituted, and through this, the film is able to break through and go all the way on levels Tony Kaye could have never accomplished.


Another reason this works is simply because Gosling is one of the most gifted actors of his generation, on his way to incredible success if we are all lucky.  Besides recent independent films like The Slaughter Rule and The United States of Leland, his biggest commercial success has been as one of the teen killers in the underrated Sandra Bullock thriller Murder by Numbers in 2002.


The comparisons to Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver on the surface could be written off as “just two crazy characters”, but Gosling is shortchanged by this comparison insofar as it makes it sound like he is a copycat or unoriginal.  If anything, the similarities end on the level of the character’s ultra-violence.  Instead, Gosling digs into both sides of this character we have never seen on screen before, both the Jewish side that wants a better life the easy way and the Skinhead who is doomed.  This is not easy, but he digs in like few actors alive at any age are capable of, making Danny into a complex mess, not a monster easily thought of as disposable.  This is a grand achievement, which he carries further in another sequence.


When his fellow Hitler-lovers have to do court-ordered sensitivity time, a story from one of the Holocaust survivors they have to hear in exchange for not going to jail strikes him profoundly.  He then has vision sequences of being the Nazi who brutally kills an infant by impaling him on the end of his rifle, but instead of just recycling similar fantasy sequences form Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), it uses the sequence to further the character study Gosling is running at such a high level with.  Because of this, no film gives us a better understanding of Judaism, its way of life, and why Fascism is failed than just about all the actual Holocaust films being made today.  This is one of independent films greatest achievements in the last few decades, thanks also to an extremely dialogue-sharp and well-written screenplay by Bean.  He co-wrote the initial story with Mark Jacobson.


The anamorphically enhanced 1.85 X 1 image is pretty good, shot by cinematographer Jim Denault.  Because this material has been covered already, plus the plethora of Holocaust films that have come before it, Denault had a real challenge to give this film a visual identity of its own.  He does not try to do Kubrick, David Fincher, Spielberg, or the obvious choices.  This world is lukewarm, so we never know where we are going, but this is not unsettling.  Instead, it brings us somewhere we have never been before, just like the story itself.


The Dolby Digital 5.1 AC-3 mix is good, but dialogue is not as clear as I wished on the rare occasion.  Some of this is due to the independent production, but I would at least be willing to blame the Dolby.  Too bad Palm does not use DTS, but this Dolby mix is otherwise good.


Extras include a commentary track with Bean and producer Christopher Roberts, the Anatomy of a Scene installment of this film on The Sundance Channel, some trailers including this film, and about 20-minutes of an on-screen interview with Bean.  They all add further dimension to this DVD.


One of the major studios’ “classics” divisions passed on the film, when a Rabbi was too shocked to recommend it.  Too bad that executive did not watch it, because they missed out on what should have been a watershed indie hit.  Now, Palm Pictures follows their theatrical release with this DVD and as Gosling in particular becomes more well known, this film may turn out to be a classic.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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