There’s a visceral power to Henry’s Bean’s provocative but uneven low-budget independent film about a Jewish fellow who, in a rage of self-loathing, becomes a “Jewish Nazi,” an abrasive and brutal skin-head who associates with radical hate groups and dreams of doing violence to those he has come paradoxically to detest. Based loosely upon the case of Daniel Burros, who committed suicide after his background was disclosed in print following his participation in a KKK rally, the film shows in periodic flashback the inability of young Danny Balint (played as a buffed-up youth by Ryan Gosling) to accept the instruction of his yeshiva instructor, resulting in his dismissal from the school and his turn to the dark side. The contemporary narrative traces the seething, yet strangely articulate, Danny’s connection with a fascist movement led by ambitious pseudo-intellectual Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane) and his Nurse Ratched confederate, Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell), his eager involvement in a series of destructive acts, one of which lends him in a “sensitivity session” with survivors of the Holocaust; and his curious romance with Carla (Summer Phoenix), a member of the Zampf-Moebius sect. The picture also, however, depicts the contradictions within the character, showing him still revering the accoutrements of his heritage while assembling around him a gang of ignorant thugs who want only to savage and humiliate them. Bean succeeds in suggesting, if not in fully elucidating, the double-sided nature of Danny’s inner life, even if ultimately it proves little more revealing than was Tony Kaye’s similar 1998 effort, “Amrerican History X.”
Much of the power of “The Believer,” however, results not from the writing or direction, but from Gosling’s extraordinary lead performance, which is worthy of comparison to Edward Norton’s committed portrayal in Kaye’s film. Gosling has since gone on to impress in the recent “Murder by Numbers,” a rather rote thriller in which he was easily the most eye-catching element, but this earlier turn (Bean’s picture was shown at Sundance in 2001, and is being released now after a couple of appearances on the Showtime cable network) is even more remarkable. Even when the script seems foggy and unfinished–as is the case with virtually all the material devoted to Zampf and Moebius, some overly-obvious hallucinatory flashbacks in which Danny imagines himself part of a horrible episode one if the survivors of the Nazi terror has related to him, and the relationship Danny has with Carla, who frankly seems the stock figure of a girl attracted to a dangerous character–Gosling’s white-hot, passionate reading remains amazingly authentic. He conveys both Danny’s profound anger and his innate, if thwarted, intelligence, and manages to evoke a degree of sympathy even when he’s at his most despicable. None of the other cast members, to be honest, are remotely in the same class. “The Believer” is largely a one-man show; thankfully, the actor at the center shows the ability to carry things pretty much on his own.
There’s nothing special about the technical side of the picture, which has the gritty, hand-held camera look of so many independent productions, and can be described most charitably as workmanlike. (“American History X” was visually far more expert.) Nor, for all its obvious seriousness, does Bean’s script manage to make its various themes and episodes coalesce into a truly coherent whole. But thanks to Gosling’s fearless performance it’s a powerfully unsettling portrait of an enigmatic, rather terrifying but also pathetic personality–the sort of film you’re more likely to respect than to enjoy, but well worth watching out nonetheless.