At first look, the swaggering neo-Nazi skinhead played to scary effect by Ryan Gosling in The Believer seems to hail from the same cesspool that spit up Russell Crowe's Neanderthal in Romper Stomper and Edward Norton's deep-thinking thug in American History X. Gosling's Danny Balint is a belligerent New York street punk who takes equal delight in punching out a frightened Talmudic scholar and justifying fascism with poisonous but articulate verbal harangues about racial purity and spiritual uplift. With his ugly sneer and his swastika T-shirt, he's one bad boy.
The difference in this baby Hitler -- and the crux of this bizarre and challenging movie -- is that Danny also happens to be an Orthodox Jew. Or once was.
The contradiction is hard to take, but filmmaker Henry Bean has facts on his side. The Believer was inspired by a 1965 New York Times article about an American Nazi Party member who committed suicide after his Jewish heritage was exposed. Viewers will have their own sundry theories -- psychological and philosophical -- about where Danny's moral confusion, his deep self-loathing and his terrible gift for reinvention originate, but one thing is certain. Like the Holocaust-haunted shopkeeper Rod Steiger played so vividly in The Pawnbroker, Danny is facing an all-out war between the victim and the oppressor inside him. Certainly he's a far more interesting and capacious character than the cocky teenage killer Gosling plays in another current release, Murder by Numbers.
This internal conflict gives Bean (he wrote the police dramas Deep Cover and Internal Affairs) ample opportunity to examine not only the workings of a neo-Nazi mind but the nature of faith itself -- a subject that never goes out of style but is especially relevant right now for anyone keeping an eye on, say, Tel Aviv and Jenin. In flashbacks, we glimpse Danny as a smart, contentious twelve-year-old arguing theology with the rabbi. We see him later mocking a frail old survivor of the camps for not standing up to the German sergeant who murdered his child before his eyes. Danny's rage, and the secret he must keep from his new pals on the ultra-right, is eating away at his very soul.
When the young firebrand ignites a meeting of Manhattan Nazis with his rhetoric ("Spiritual life comes from race," he advises), the cold-eyed leaders of the pack, Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell) and Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane), quickly recruit him as a frontman and a fundraiser -- complete with a cell phone and a nicely cut suit. This isn't precisely what the "man of action" had in mind, but he goes along while dreaming up a plot to establish his blood-oath credentials with the less intellectual members of the gang. But those deep divisions in Danny's consciousness keep making trouble. When the skinheads trash a synagogue, he can't resist rescuing a roll of Scripture -- then giving Hebrew lessons to his new and confused Nazi girlfriend (Summer Phoenix). Addressing a gathering of well-heeled right-wingers, he can't help manipulating them with a Hebrew prayer. When an assassination plot goes awry and an aggressive Times reporter (A.D. Miles) starts snooping around, Danny is caught, like most zealots trapped by serial passions, in a bind between his old faith and his new one. Can Danny imagine some act that will reconcile the two?
The voters at last year's Sundance Film Festival found that question -- and Bean's handling of it -- intriguing enough to award The Believer their Grand Jury Prize, but until now only cable TV's Showtime had the guts to pick up this hot potato. Kudos to Fireworks Pictures for finally taking the theatrical-distribution plunge. Despite its distant genesis in newspaper fact, it's obviously topical (there's even a brief argument here about Israel's actions in the West Bank settlements) and thoroughly provocative. There are a couple of technical rough spots, but this daring film challenges most widely held notions about religious conviction while providing a complex portrait of an identity crisis that's run amok and a good mind that's jumped the tracks. The supporting cast provides nothing equal to the punch and power of young Gosling's performance, but that's all right: It's enough that he gets into our heads with surprising ease and stays there like a recurring nightmare.