A review of “The Believer” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: *** 1/2

Rating: R for intense violence and language

Run Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

 

 

The most compelling performance of the year adds substantial depth to this shocking testament to anti-Semitism and neo-fascism. 

Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling) isn’t your run-of-the-mill skinhead.  The very core of his being harbors an astonishing ferocity for denouncing and degrading anyone or anything that is Jewish.  Or does it?  Despite intellectual rationalizations for his vicious hatred and anti-Semitism, Danny’s heritage is an Achilles' heel. Danny is a Jew.

Born into a devout family and raised as the model Hebrew student, Danny’s possesses a keen intellect that could be the ruin of him.  He pushes the envelope too far – questioning rabbinical authority and turning against the teachings of the Talmud. His anger unusually focused on the philosophies he was weaned on, Danny morphs into a bullying, swastika-wearing neo-Nazi.

The shock value of this psychological tour de force is tough to bear.  Horrific images of Danny and his group of thugs destroying sacred religious documents at a neighborhood Temple.  A rehab session at which Danny lashes out at Holocaust survivors for succumbing to the Nazis. Clandestine group meetings that too closely resemble Hitler Youth rallies. 

Gosling (“Murder by Numbers”) is sheer genius – in turns enigmatic, intimidating, and, believe it or not, sympathetic. Forced by his character’s inquisitive mind and private self-loathing to question a higher power, Gosling’s conflicted antagonist brilliantly teeters over the chasm between Nazi and Jew. The performance is reminiscent of Edward Norton’s surprising screen debut in “Primal Fear” – creative, inventive and alluringly persuasive.

“The Believer” comes to the Bay Area with a checkered past in tow.  The Grand Jury Prize winner at Sundance in 2001, it was subsequently pulled from the lineup at the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival in the wake of the September 11 attacks.  A stint on Showtime in March effectively killed its Oscar hopes (by tainting its theatrically-pure status). Now that there’s a chance to see it on the big screen, don’t miss the most disturbing and provocative film of the year.