In "The Believer," director Henry Bean gets hold of an incendiary, richly dramatic idea: He gives us the portrait, in movie-thriller terms, of a smart, fierce, argumentative young Jewish man who deliberately tries to turn himself into an anti-Semitic thug.
Bean's character, Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling), is a turbulent, feisty ex-yeshiva student who carries his revolt past sanity into a minefield of psychic and political danger. He becomes the ringleader of a young band of neo-Nazi skinheads who terrorize their New York neighborhood and even engage in assassinations. He's also the pet of a wealthy couple, Lina Moebius and Curtis Zampf (Theresa Russell and Billy Zane), who are trying to start a "respectable" above-ground fascist political movement. They see Danny, potentially, as their "little Hitler."
This complex character is taken by Bean (who is Jewish himself) from life. Danny is based on Daniel Burros, a 28-year-old Ku Klux Klan member whose Jewish origins were revealed by The New York Times, despite his threats of murder and suicide if exposed. Burros killed himself after reading the piece, prompting a book by Times editors A.M. Rosenthal and Arthur Gelb ("One More Victim") and, eventually, this movie.
As played by Gosling (the young supporting star of "Murder by Numbers"), Danny Balint is one of the most electrifying, articulate and spellbinding movie characters this year, even though the film itself, while always compelling and deeply provocative, is unsatisfying. It's a magnetic portrait of prejudice and cultural self-loathing that misses the psychological depth and social verisimilitude that would have made it great.
Gosling, however, is fantastic. Like Ed Norton in the deceptively similar "American History X," Gosling gives us a full-blown portrait of bigotry: the posturing, the hateful diatribes, the physical narcissism, the smirking certainty and the bully-boy explosiveness. But Gosling also shows, with real clarity, Danny's ferociously divided soul, haunted by the heritage he can't escape. It's a brilliant job.
Danny, whom we first see stalking and beating a frightened young Talmudic scholar in the subways, is, like the real-life Burros, strangled in contradictions. He still lives with his Jewish parents and is still fixated on his Jewish roots, which he knows with great pedagogical detail and intensity - enough so that he gets the fascist couple's young daughter, Carla (Summer Phoenix), hooked on Hebraic ritual as well. Harried by a smug, young, liberal newspaper reporter who's uncovered his double life, Danny finally goes over the edge. The movie is about how he, much like Hazel Motes, the tormented preacher of "The Church of Christ Without Christ" in Flannery O'Connor's "Wise Blood," finally can't escape his own God.
What goes wrong with "The Believer" is partly tied into what makes the movie so unusual, what probably helped win it the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and the Moscow Festival Grand Prize: the way Danny dominates the film and the ways in which Bean, to some extent, makes Danny a hero rather than an antihero. This probably isn't intentional. Like Sam Fuller (whose muscular, polemic style "The Believer" often suggests), Bean is trying to be as hammeringly direct and vivid as possible, even while he lets his antagonist become a kind of fantasy figure.
As real as Gosling plays him, Danny is still, rather improbably, the smartest, toughest, sexiest, most eloquent and physically brave character in the film: brainier than his neo-Nazi pals, more street-tough than his ex-yeshiva mates. Nobody can stand up to him, and the other characters - even Curtis, Zane's potentially interesting parlor fascist - pale into the background. I don't buy it.
The real Burros, I suspect, was a more pathetic character - even though he did rise high in the ranks of his hate groups - and violent bigotry is itself the pathetic refuge of the permanent outsider, intellectually or emotionally shortchanged, suffocating in hate and embittered at his own exclusion.
Few movies, though, have as much to say about America, its politics and its divided psyche than "The Believer," and few say it with such biting articulacy. For that, Bean deserves every credit. "The Believer," intended for theaters, has already debuted on cable TV's Showtime, but it's still one of the year's most thought-provoking, hard-hitting films, gutsily opening up a subject rarely done with this kind of all-out chutzpah.
3 1/2 stars
Directed and written by Henry Bean; story by Bean, Mark Jacobson; photographed by Jim Denault; edited by Mayin Lo, Lee Percy; production designed by Susan Block; music by Joel Diamond; produced by Susan Hoffman, Christopher Roberts. A Fireworks Pictures/IDP Films release; opens Friday, June 14. Running time: 1:40. MPAA rating: R (strong violence, language and some sexual content).
Danny Balint - Ryan Gosling
Carla Moebius - Summer Phoenix
Lina Moebius - Theresa Russell
Curtis Zampf - Billy Zane
Rav Zingesser - Jack Drummond Guy Danielsen - A.D. Miles
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times