“The Believer” is based on the true story of a Jewish kid who grew up to be a neo-Nazi skinhead. Such an incredibly ironic turn of events practically begs to be made into a film, and first-time director Henry Bean guides this one very well.
Ryan Gosling plays Danny Balint, the former Jewish-school troublemaker who has grown up to be a hatemonger. We see in flashback how he asked questions he shouldn’t have asked, about how the Old Testament shows God to be power-hungry and malicious, about how his teachers were mortified at the things he would say. Now, in the present, he hides his roots from his peers, for obvious reasons, and emerges to be an articulate spokesman for the new movement.
The fascist and racist groups he connects with are a little embarrassed by him at first; anti-Semitism, frankly, is not fashionable anymore. Leading racists Lina (Theresa Russell) and Curtis (Billy Zane) recognize his potential, though, and try to use them for their good. Danny, meanwhile, is an item of increasing curiosity to Lina’s daughter, Carla (Summer Phoenix).
But Danny doesn’t want to wear a suit and be a lecturer; his stated goal is to kill a Jew. He is panicked, however, by Guy Danielsen (A.D. Miles), a newspaper reporter who uncovers his secret past. If he publishes that story, Danny says, he will kill himself. It all comes to a head, finally, on Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement.
If there was ever a more deeply conflicted character than Danny Balint, I’d like to see him. He wears his swastika T-shirt around like a badge, proof enough of what he stands for, even while telling Carla it’s sacrilegious to swear in front of the scrolls he swiped from a synagogue. He leads his rednecked friends on a rampage through a synagogue, but keeps them from desecrating anything particularly holy. Gosling’s eyes are often as sad as they are hateful, and often convey both emotions at the same time. It’s harrowing to realize, half-way through the film, that there’s only one place this can lead.
Danny is, ultimately, the only character in the movie. The others are there to fulfill their functions, and the acting is respectable all around. But Danny — thanks to Ryan Gosling — is where the emotion is. Every person of faith has either doubted his convictions or been unable to live up to them at some point, and Danny personifies that human-nature quandary.
A- (; )