But the gripping film benefits from a strong performance by Ryan Gosling as a young Jew who becomes a skinhead.
Ryan Gosling plays a neo-Nazi skinhead who's Jewish in Henry Bean's "The Believer." (Fireworks Pictures / May 17, 2002)
From frame one we get a vivid impression of Danny. After pumping iron, Danny, a forklift operator at a fast food warehouse, boards a New York subway, spots a Jewish boy wearing a yarmulke, follows him off the subway car and brutally attacks him in the street.
Flashbacks reveal Danny 10 years earlier in fierce debates with a rabbi at his yeshiva. As bright as he is feisty, Danny feels that Judaism posits an all-powerful God and an impotent humanity that in turn feeds his growing outrage at what he considers Jewish passiveness in the face of the Holocaust. "The Believer" was inspired by a 1965 New York Times article in which reporter McCandlish Phillips confronted 28-year-old Daniel Burrows, formerly second in command of the American Nazi Party, with strong evidence that he was a Jew. The consequences of the interview led New York Times editors Arthur Gelb and A.M. Rosenthal to write the book "One More Victim." Danny's story as an adult gets under way when he attends, with a bunch of his skinhead pals, an underground meeting of neo-fascists at the apartment of Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell) and her lover, Curtis (Billy Zane), leader of the group. Curtis believes there's only one form of government that can restore America's "lost soul," and declares that Danny's anti-Semitism is not only obsolete but catastrophic to the movement. Lina, however, sees in Danny a veritable young Hitler, an articulate and impassioned spellbinder who could be put to good use as Curtis' group prepares to make its first moves above ground. Meanwhile, Lina's sultry daughter, Carla (Summer Phoenix), who has a healthy intelligence, is drawn to Danny sexually and intellectually, eager to challenge him on both grounds. Interestingly, the most revealing of Danny's countless remarks about himself is that he is "no intellectual." Indeed, his thinking reflects no theological or philosophical context but proceeds with a logic increasingly detached from reality.
Nobody seems to notice or care that Danny is, to put it mildly, profoundly disturbed, the proverbial walking time bomb. It would be no exaggeration to describe him as a raging psychopath or just plain crazy. Bean has said that a friend, upon seeing the film, remarked, "This isn't a movie about a Jewish Nazi. It's a movie about being Jewish."
According to Bean, his friend was exactly right and goes on to say that's why his film "never tells us how Danny got to be that way."
While it is possible to agree with Bean, that what makes people tick may be ultimately unknowable and irrational, it is hard to overlook what modern psychology and science can reveal about the confluence of nature and nurture on a child's formative years.
We get glimpses of Danny's father, a widower who sits around looking depressed, and that's it. Bean might have come up with a movie to match the power of Danny, in his writing of the part and in its portrayal by Gosling (also quite effective as a charismatic, homicidal teen in "Murder by Numbers"), had he suggested the shaping influences of Danny's life and then attempted to evoke the essential mystery of the human heart, of religion and of life itself.
Bean's deliberately elliptical approach also undercuts the film's potential for universality. Surely, all religions rest upon faith, which in turn becomes the foundation for a system of beliefs than can bedevil adherents. But the incompleteness of the portrait of Danny and the sketchiness, indeed, lack of believability, of the characters of Curtis, Lina and Carla can make it tough for people who are not Jewish--or are not conventionally religious--to identify with a Jew's struggle with the contradictions of his faith (which also may not be so easy to reject no matter how intense the effort).
Certainly, "The Believer" is admirably ambitious and utterly unsparing, but as credible as the arc of Danny's odyssey is in itself, the all-important need to evoke a profound sense of the enigmatic and paradoxical in relation to Danny's fate has eluded Bean.
MPAA rating: R for strong violence, language and some sexual content. Times guidelines: uncommonly complex adult themes; far too intense for children.
A Fireworks Pictures release. Writer-director Henry Bean. Based on a story by Ben and Mark Jacobson. Producers Susan Hoffman, Christopher Roberts. Executive producers Jay Firestone, Adam Haight, Daniel Diamond, Eric Sandys. Cinematographer Jim Denault. Editors Mayin Lo, Lee Percy. Music Joel Diamond. Costumes Alex Alvarez, Jennifer Newman. Production designer Susan Block. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
Exclusively at Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379, and the Edwards University 6, 4525 Campus Drive, Irvine, (949) 854-8811.