Anyone familiar with the dire straits of American film distribution shouldnt have been shocked that no one wanted to chance a digitally shot feature about a Jewish Nazi. And, as it turns out, The Believer looks great on television. Jim Denaults camera work, much of it hand-held and impeccably framed, gives the film a running-fast, documentary aesthetic that dovetails with its running-scared vibe. You get a dose of the films panic-in-the-streets jitters right off, when Goslings Danny Balint beats up a Jewish student hes followed off a subway car. Spittle flying, Danny hectors the student (Yeshiva bocher!), but when he invites his victim to fight, the words sound less like a bullys taunt than a desperate entreaty. As the student curls on the ground, hands extended defensively, Danny works himself into a lathering rage, kicking the boy again and again. Its terrifying, but its also hypnotic. You cant take your eyes off Gosling -- whose hard focus and spring-loaded physicality echo the De Niro of Mean Streets -- and neither can Bean, who doesnt show much interest in the student as he gets the shit kicked out of him. Its easy to see why, not only because Gosling is such a charismatic presence, but because, as one character later says to another about fascism, Its a romantic movement -- it always has been.
Danny beats the student not because his victim is Jewish, but because the student is the Jew Who Doesnt Fight Back, the Jew who, he believes, accepts, even welcomes his destiny as historys victim. In turn, Danny -- haunted by the Holocaust -- has tried to erase the Jew that he fears lies within, the eternal victim, by becoming the ultimate tough Jew: The Jew Who Fights, even kills. The Nazi Jew. Swaggering about New York in red suspenders, romper-stomper boots and swastika tee, Danny looks, well, cooler, certainly scarier, than the student, with his black-rimmed glasses, kippah and sweaty fear; even the two black teens he shoves aside in a subway stairwell leave this rampaging neo--Bernie Goetz alone. Still, Doc Martens and white laces do not make the skinhead, and although Danny talks the talk, he cant fully walk the walk. He winces when some of his fellow thugs desecrate a Torah and, while listening to an old man testify to Nazi atrocity, holds back a tear that trembles at the edge of his eyelid, threatening to betray him to the survivor, to the skins, to himself. Danny may tell everyone wholl listen, from armchair fascists to a New York Times reporter, that he hates Jews, but no matter how often he rolls the National Socialist swill around in his mouth, he cant quite seem to swallow it. The trouble is, neither can we.
The Believer is smart enough that you wish it were better; its crude agitprop, Sam Fuller polemics without Sam Fuller poetics. After its electric opening -- one of the few occasions where Bean advances his case cinematically, showing rather than just telling -- the film rapidly assumes the shape of a 100-minute debate, as Danny argues against the Jews and, in the same breath, for them. Gosling spits invective with ferocity, but hes a straw man -- you never buy his anti-Semitism. Its a wonder any of the other characters do. When Danny tries to prevent other skins from touching a Torah, its unbelievable that they dont suspect something is up. His argument is that a real hater, an Eichmann, studies his enemies so he knows why he hates them. But because this rationale comes in a vacuum, its meaningless. Danny may have done his homework in religious school, but Bean himself doesnt bother to show how or why anyone, this stupid, heartbreak kid included, finds solace in a community of faith such as Orthodox Judaism. We see why Danny likes hanging with skinheads: Theyre tough, violent, murderously fascinating, and they have this neat hideout where they blow shit up. But other than an awkward, oft-repeated flashback in which a young Danny argues the meaning of Abraham and Isaac (which the Nietzschean squirt insists proves God is the ultimate bully), the film offers little real foundation for either his love or his hate.
Like Danny, Bean prefers to pound home his message, to pummel us with one speech after another. Danny joins forces with two white supremacists named Lina Moebius and Curtis Zampf (think Kampf), played with entertaining, villainy zest by Theresa Russell and somewhat more restraint by Billy Zane. Intent on building a legitimate, aboveground fascist party, Lina and Curtis are interested in channeling Dannys charisma, but are concerned that the political incorrectness of his anti-Semitism will derail their anti-globalism plans, which they hope to sell to both the extreme right and the extreme left. (Earth First!, says Zampf, seems ripe for the plucking.) But even in these violent, paranoid times, Lina, Curtis and their ragtag retinue dont make very persuasive masters of their lunatic universe, or convincing threats to democracy. Then again, Bean isnt a committed realist; his metier is exaggeration, which sometimes tips the movie from merely outrageous to near-parodic. One of the films most authentically eccentric conceits, and one of its most dementedly funny, is that Dannys love interest, Linas daughter Carla (Summer Phoenix, in full-on creature mode), is more than your average, garden-variety wacko. She asks Danny to hit her before they screw, later pleads with him to teach her Hebrew, and finally seals her crazy shiksa love by soul-kissing his vomit-speckled lips.
Identity can make you nuts, but it doesnt have to leave you hopeless. In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about the peculiarities of a double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at ones self through the eyes of others, of measuring ones soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. Du Bois concept of two-ness (two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals) speaks not just to the problem of the color-line but to the problem of every one of this patchwork nations bifurcated identities. Yet in seeming to suggest that its Orthodox Judaism in and of itself -- rather than in its dialectical relationship to the world at large -- thats driven Danny insane, leaving him literally and culturally schizophrenic, Bean paints himself into a corner, leaving both the film and Danny with no exit. In the end, Beans greater argument isnt really with the anti-Semites of the world, real or imagined; its with Orthodox Judaism, which pulls at Danny unrelentingly, seductively. Toward the frenzied end of The Believer, after running with his racist cohorts for too many miles, Danny finally hooks up with some of his former Jewish schoolmates, and you see him, for the first time, really engage with the culture he sees as having forced him around the bend. Funny thing is, it doesnt look all that bad -- to Danny, or to us.
Henry Bean is profiled by Ella Taylor on page 28. Ryan Gosling as The Believers Nazi yeshiva bocher
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.