(director/writer: Henry Bean; screenwriter: from a story by Ben & Mark Jacobson; cinematographer: Jim Denault; editors: Mayin Lo/Lee Percy; music: Joel Diamond; cast: Ryan Gosling (Danny Balint), Summer Phoenix (Carla Moebius), Theresa Russell (Lina Moebius), Billy Zane (Curtis Zampf), Glenn Fitzgerald ( Drake), A.D. Miles (Guy Danielsen), Dean Strober (Stuart), Elizabeth Reaser (Miriam); Runtime: 98; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Susan Hoffman/Christopher Roberts; Fireworks Pictures; 2001)
“It made for an emotionally hair-pulling ride, without benefit of much intellectual give and take.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Writer/director Henry Bean’s “The Believer” is a fictionalized story of Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling). It was inspired by the 1965 New York Times newspaper article in which reporter McCandlish Phillips confronted a 28-year-old fascist, Daniel Burros, with evidence that he was a Jew. Danny was second in command of the American Nazi Party and a member of the Ku Klux Klan, who was arrested in NYC in 1965 at a KKK rally. This caused his suicide soon after the article appeared in print, as he threatened to do.
In the film, Danny is an articulate though not an intellectual Jew from Queens, who is proudly a member of a skinhead neo-fascist gang garbed in a loud red Nazi T-shirt. The shock is how any contemporary Jew could become a leader of a neo-Nazi movement. The obvious answer that he has a few screws loose is glossed over to show him in this film version acting out against his own Jewish roots to curry favor with his worst enemy in the hopes that they could finish what Hitler couldn’t (it’s indicated that he probably joins the thugs over his shame at how weak the Jews acted by not defending themselves during the Holocaust). But his reason for joining the neo-Nazis was never given as anything but an irrationality, and thereby the film plays more as an exercise in shock and tell than in anything more revealing.
To make his case go past the obvious that the messed up kid needs a massive dose of psychotherapy, Bean gives his arguments some weight by using the biblical metaphor of God testing his son Abraham as he orders him to kill his son Isaac. According to the Old Testament God stops Abraham from killing his son just in time, acknowledging Abraham’s willingness to obey his command; however, in Bean’s version, which he collaborated with Mark Jacobson, he uses the heretical midrash to explain that Isaac is sacrificed only to be resurrected later. But for Danny, who is both a believer and doubter in God, this becomes his ultimate battle within and he takes on the challenging role of searching for the truth. What motivated him to become a Nazi to find this truth, is something the filmmaker can never satisfactorily explain.
The film opens with a Latin quote from Catullus: “I hate and I love and who can tell me why?” The Believer uses that as its rationale for its warped subject’s puzzling actions. It’s not an easy film to like because it stirs up things that shake at the very foundation of all religions and belief systems. The whole of the film is filled with acts of hatred, violence and swinish characters spouting bigotry that goes unanswered, and its main character is a detestable sicko who is overwhelmed with Jewish self-hatred–as he’s perceived as another victim of the Holocaust. Danny fits the Yiddish expression of it’s “hard to be a Jew,” a theme that seeps into this risky film—one that won a Grand Jury Prize at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival but was too controversial to get much of a theater release. It was screened at the Simon Wiesenthal Center and met with a poor reception, that delayed its limited release date even further. I think it should pick up some momentum on video, as this film is not visually pleasing and seems to be made more for home viewing and loud argumentative discussions afterwards.
It’s the hot button issue of internalized anti-Semitism espoused by Danny’s skinhead, body-building, and warehouse forklift operator, who states he would like to kill Jews as his answer to curing the world’s problems. That incenses and makes us, at least, curious to see if we can understand where he’s coming from. Maybe someone like Danny is so crazed that we can only see him in the scary pose he presents and can’t say for sure what led him to be a Nazi rather than be in the Jewish Defense League, where you might think such a violent extremist Jew would be drawn to. Bean awkwardly tries to answer that in flashbacks by showing him as an arrogant skinny boy arguing against his yeshiva Hebrew teacher and violently rejecting his Jewishness. Danny takes the Jews to task for slavishly obeying a God they only know about from the Torah. He argues that the Jewish God is all-powerful and humans are nothing in comparison, therefore God could do with them whatever he wants. It’s a clever dialectic pose that the filmmaker mistakenly allows to go unanswered. This sets the tone for The Believer to be loading the deck for Danny to get away with saying whatever he wants, while the viewer is left with no choice but to watch him act out his sick fantasy (which puts this film on thin ice, as the too real Jewish slurs were well articulated and could easily be picked up by the wrong party). It made for an emotionally hair-pulling ride, without benefit of much intellectual give and take. The film’s most weighty discourse is in the argument of what is a Jew, as it comes up with an interesting theory of the real Jew being a wanderer while the Israeli is not a real Jew because they own the land and are willing to defend it. But like all arguments presented by Bean, there’s only a series of outbursts and no real search for the truth.
For the heart of the film, we are stuck watching many unpleasant anti-Semitic incidents that raise one’s blood pressure but do not clarify things. A row is caused by Danny’s neo-Nazis in a kosher restaurant which results in an ugly to watch sensitivity session the court orders them to attend, where they further victimize elderly Holocaust survivors instead of gaining any sensitivity. Also, a leading Jewish citizen, an investment banker is assassinated, and a synagogue is desecrated and the Torah spit on. Danny sours on the Nazis for touching the Torah because he believes they don’t have a right to violate it without understanding its meaning, like he does.
The film sparkled with the 22-year-old Gosling’s dazzling performance, but the surrounding cast performed by rote as if they were cardboard figures. The script was unable to give them lines to make them seem persuasive, and it soon became apparent everything revolved around the charismatic Danny redefining himself and searching for a new identity. There would be no film without his kind of complex and fiery performance, as the story itself was on shaky ground.
In an early scene on a New York City subway, the twentysomething Danny intimidates a scholarly young Jewish student wearing a yarmulke who is just trying to read. He follows the yeshiva student onto the street and curses him out for being so weak, and then viciously stomps on him. That does it for me ever having any sympathy for this psychopath.
Danny goes to the Internet to find a meeting for a slick neo-fascist group and attends with a bunch of his skinhead cronies. It’s at the apartment of society matron Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell) and her lover, Curtis (Billy Zane), the soft-spoken but cunningly despicable glam leader of the group. Curtis believes that America’s “lost soul” must be restored by a new government of modern fascists and believes that Danny’s crude anti-Semitism is not only passe but dangerous to the movement. Lina, however, is impressed with Danny’s passion and ability to arouse others through his bombastic speaking and thinks if he’s not an FBI plant he could be put to good use as a fundraiser (which hurts Danny, because it’s back to being perceived by the old Jewish stereotype). Meanwhile, Lina’s sexy daughter, Carla (Summer Phoenix), is drawn to Danny sexually and intellectually, and is willing to have rough sex and to challenge him about his unyielding beliefs. She soon gets drawn into studying Judaism to keep up with her bad boy, whom she suspects knows too much about the Jews to not be one himself. Her purposes are just as inexplicable as Danny’s.
Bean’s idea is a worthy one, to make this film more of a religious lesson about Jewish doctrine and of how hatred and love are just part of the same polemics and how both Nazis and religious Jews are both blind followers. But all its good intentions are wasted by its confusing messages and its one-sided take on religion. It spills out too much Jewish doctrine that is hard to comprehend in its twisty lesson about a questioning young man returning to his roots after a journey through hell. Danny ends up seeing the hypocrisies of both his religion and neo-Nazi gang, and chooses death over life despite learning that he really loves what he hates. All the intellectual positions and character studies were too sketchy to make any of this a credible attack on blind belief or hatred. It’s a film for the chosen few who have the temperament and tolerance to wade through the filth and see what the filmmaker is really getting at. For those few, it might be a worthwhile experience. But for me, even though I found the characterization by Gosling well-played nevertheless his character was shallow and unsympathetic. His hate rampage brings back too many bad memories of those who reject all moral boundaries and think their unjust actions are right because they have the power to carry them out. There were just too many negatives here to take a few of the fine points that were developed and say they were enough to elevate this gutsy work into a great film experience. Tackling a difficult and meaningful subject and having a star performance, is not enough to make this more than a fascinating idea for a film that doesn’t work on all levels and will probably fail to reach most. But I can’t argue too much with a film that draws on so many contradictions and takes a most unlikely story drawn from real-life and makes it happen. The danger is that it might stir up anti-Semitic feelings in a viewer not able to comprehend what it’s really getting at. I wouldn’t minimize that danger, and wished the director would have been more aware of such possibilities (I’m just calling for more cautionary discretion on his part rather than outside censorship). There’s enough hatred already in America without adding more fuel to the fire. Though I found the following line funny, “What about killing Barbra Streisand,” said by a member in attendance at the gathering of Lina and Curtis’s when Danny proposes killing Jews and is asked which Jews. Yet I still found it creepy and I would have removed it because such an incendiary remark could easily be misinterpreted by those not realizing the filmmaker was just being humorous. The dark humor and intellectual persuasion side of the story never came together with a fulfilling dramatic one, as the film takes too many chances in pushing its “Jewish question” but does not educate enough to warrant the risk. In fact, there was absolutely nothing to learn from this twisted young man to give him so much space and muscle to articulate so much hate. The pedestrian directing was at fault for much of the film’s unevenness, yet it had its moments when it made its bold statements feel right about not accepting a religion on blind faith alone. But then again the argument was only a tease. Aren’t all religions based on faith, which distinguishes them from any other belief system–such as fascism or democracy? As you can see, this film is inconclusive and first starts to become interesting when it’s over and you can think about it more fully or discuss it with others or say what the filmmaker might have said if he were less confused about his message and provided an articulate opposite for Danny. Just don’t get into an online chat group with a neo-Nazi group or some self-hating Jews, or you’ll probably get the same negative mindless responses you got from “The Believer.”
REVIEWED ON 6/28/2003 GRADE: C +