starring Ryan Gosling, Summer Phoenix, Theresa Russell, Billy Zane
written and directed by Henry Bean
by Walter Chaw It isn't that Henry Bean's provocative The Believer unintentionally glamorizes white supremacy, as has been written--it's that The Believer doesn't do enough to make a case for it. Based ("inspired by" the better term) on the 1965 story of Daniel Burros, a member of the American Nazi Party and the KKK who, after being "outed" as a Jew in a NEW YORK TIMES article, killed himself confessing equal parts loathing and self-loathing, The Believer is unabashedly philo-Semitic, presenting the case for Judaism in a way manipulative and simple-minded. It is an Ayn Rand argument, a fictional foil with serpent's eloquence outmatched in the end by the light of right reason--literally in this case. That it imagines the afterlife as a Sisyphusian debate is the closest it ever comes to poignancy; the rest of the picture's dedicated to Philip Roth-lite: most of the anger, one quarter the savage. I've no problem with a biased dishonesty--my problem is with disguising that dishonesty in evenhanded reportage.
Danny (Ryan Gosling) is a twenty-something skinhead conversant with scripture and strangely protective of the Torah. That his being a self-hating Jew remains a mystery to his white supremacist mates is, in other words, entirely a product of The Believer's Nazis being complete idiots. Danny, meanwhile, is a pedagogical savant, something Bean underscores with horrendously clumsy flashback sequences in which a pre-Bah Mitzvah Danny (Jacob Green) sounds off on the "putziness" of Abraham in class to the ire of a flummoxed Rabbi and his bemused yeshiva classmates. Danny's thoughts are so formed and his arguments so unchallenged that Bean's press-kit claims to objectivity towards his subjects falls before the stereotyped caricatures that comprise The Believer's dissenting opinions: well-adjusted Semitic academics on the one side, the shambling sideshow of Theresa Russell (as the evil Omen nanny), Billy Zane (as a hippie), and Summer Phoenix (as an S&M plot device hot for white meat) on the other.
Gosling's much-lauded performance is indeed impressive in a scowling way, yet so much energy appears to have been expended in the cause of "pensive" that when more complicated expressions of ambiguity are required, the situation carries the day rather than the vein in Gosling's forehead. It doesn't help that Bean's idea of character complexity seems tied up in such cinematically pathetic crutches as the abovementioned flashbacks and an egregious fantasy sequence inspired by a "sensitivity training class" involving the skinheads and three Holocaust survivors. When Danny waxes ironic at a froufrou shindig among high-rolling haters (a gathering that would have been at home in outrageous schlock like The Boys From Brazil and is as inflammatory and ridiculous as a belief that Jews gather in a luxury cave to fix world events), The Believer sacrifices itself to contrivance and head-slapping improbabilities.
The Believer contains sloppy storytelling: a fascist who discovers Danny's secret disappears midway with no explanation; Summer Phoenix's character is irritatingly underwritten; Danny's value to Zane's fascist roundtable is a riddle damnably unanswered; and Danny's inevitable fate is not only telegraphed (poorly, at that) but so romanticized as to render it gutless and dispiriting. We're given nothing in the way of motivation in regards to Danny's conversion, the intervening decade between mouthy smart kid to surly smart kid left the kind of mystery that conveniently sidesteps responsibility and plausibility.
A contentious winner of Sundance's Grand Jury prize, The Believer is only now finding a distributor, its delay almost entirely a product of Bean's self-deluded hubris: He made the mistake of screening his unfocused tongue bath for Rabbi Abraham Cooper, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The picture screened on Showtime and now, apparently, will play at a theatre near you, and its shunning has become the kind of critical cause célèbre that allows it to float on its shaky narrative while the one pulpit it pounds is discussed irrespective of The Believer itself. For a fascinating look at fascism, check out the early Russell Crowe-vehicle Romper Stomper; for an honest look at faith, look to Robert Duvall's The Apostle; for this picture's debate handled with searing intelligence and humour, see Roth's Operation: Shylock. For a sham construct based on theory, sleight-of-hand, and ill-wrought hypothesis, The Believer is just the ticket. Originally published: June 14, 2002.