Here’s the thing about The Believer, from screenwriter and first-time director Henry Bean: It’s a fireball of contradictory ideas that will pin you to your seat. Danny Balint, played with astonishing ferocity and feeling by newcomer Ryan Gosling, is a young New York Jew — yeshiva-educated — who becomes a bullying, skin-headed, swastika-wearing neo-Nazi. Loaded with awards, including the Grand Jury prize at Sundance, The Believer is the most potent and provocative film of the year so far.
And where can you catch this movie miracle? Not in any theater, at least not until early 2002, when tiny Fireworks Pictures will provide limited distribution. To see The Believer now you’ll have to subscribe to Showtime, the pay-cable channel that premieres the film on September 30th. Cheers to Showtime, except that a TV debut deprives Bean’s remarkable achievement of consideration for film awards such as Oscars. (A similar fate befell The Last Seduction, with Linda Fiorentino, in 1994.) Many will argue that The Believer is too controversial for tight-assed Oscar voters. But the Academy nominated Edward Norton for playing a neo-Nazi in 1998’s American History X, a film not nearly as powerful as Bean’s but one that did find major distribution.
What gives? For starters, American History X ends with the redemption of Norton’s character. At the climax of The Believer, Danny — facing death — is still arguing with himself, raising questions about Jews as wimps or Zionist storm troopers. This is a touchy topic, notably for Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who felt the film didn’t work and has publicly said so. Without full-throttle support from the Jewish community, The Believer is on the ropes. Bean, a Conservative Jew from Philadelphia, is a screenwriter with a commercial track record, from Internal Affairs to Enemy of the State. But his film, in some quarters, was beginning to look like a how-to guide for anti-Semitism. Distributors fled in droves.
In context, The Believer is what Bean says it is: “a paean to Judaism.” In isolation, its details can be shocking: Danny stalking and beating a Jewish boy; Danny using cardboard cutouts of a Jewish family for target practice; Danny at a Fascist meeting at the home of Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell) and Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane), where he advocates killing Jews. (One idiot nominates Barbra Streisand.) But Danny’s designs are to create “Germany all over again.” He denounces an elderly Holocaust survivor for having done nothing when a Nazi impaled the man’s three-year-old son on a bayonet. In dreams, Danny sees himself as that Nazi. In flashbacks, we see the young Danny deriding his Talmud instructor for teaching that God asking Abraham to kill his son Isaac was a test of faith. To Danny, who sees Isaac as being “traumatized, a putz the rest of his life,” the tale reveals God as “a power-drunk madman” who wants to make Jews afraid: “Let him crush me like the conceited bully that he is. Go ahead!”
Danny’s dare to God is the crux of the film, which gains in edgy verisimilitude thanks to Jim Denault’s hand-held camera and Joel Diamond’s haunting score. Danny believes that hate is the Jews’ only defense against annihilation — or worse, assimilation. Hate is how Danny shows his love. In a telling scene, Danny rebels when his skinhead cohorts deface a synagogue and rip the sacred Torah. He repairs the pages at home and forbids his girlfriend, Carla (Summer Phoenix), Lina’s sexually masochistic daughter, to be naked in front of the Torah.
Though The Believer is loosely based on the story of Daniel Burros, a Ku Klux Klan leader who killed himself when a New York Times reporter revealed he was a Jew, Bean refuses to shape his film as a case history. For that reason, the scenes with Carla, her mother and Danny’s invalid father (Ronald Guttman) are thin to the point of threadbare. But Bean triumphs by boldly aligning his film with Danny’s conflicted heart. In Gosling, a Canadian actor who started at twelve as a TV Mouseketeer alongside Britney Spears before moving on to film (Remember the Titans), Bean has found the perfect actor. Gosling gives a great, dare-anything performance that will be talked of for ages. Other films, including the Aussie Romper Stomper, have tried to locate humanity in the grip of hatred. That The Believer does so without patronizing or canonizing its battered, questing protagonist makes it unique and unforgettable.