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REVIEW: 2001 Sundance Winner Finally Hits Screens; Gosling Shines in “The Believer”

REVIEW: 2001 Sundance Winner Finally Hits Screens; Gosling Shines in "The Believer"

REVIEW: 2001 Sundance Winner Finally Hits Screens; Gosling Shines in "The Believer"

by Guy V. Cimbalo

(indieWIRE/05.16.02) — “The Believer” ultimately falls prey to the same tired expectations as any given after-school special. Ryan Gosling‘s breakout performance as Jewish neo-Nazi Danny Balint ultimately proves the only saving grace of a film choking on its own familiar plot. Although the addition of an overstated irony and an obscure ending are expected to transform his all-too-familiar learning curve into something more, the result is a film as muddled as our anti-hero’s politics.

If “The Believer” already sounds familiar, it’s for more reasons than its plot — the film has taken a long, strange trip before making it to theaters. Despite having won both the 2001 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the IFP‘s Open Palm award, “The Believer” failed to find theatrical distribution and aired instead on Showtime. But now Fireworks Pictures, who also financed the film, will distribute “The Believer” nationally (it opens Friday in New York).

Danny Balint is the articulate neo-Nazi with a hidden past — he was once a star student at Yeshiva. Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane), a sober, sage white supremacist, and his girlfriend Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell) take the 22-year-old under his wing and attempt to use Danny’s fiery rhetoric to raise funds among New York’s marginalized Fascist community. But suddenly Danny is racked with doubt and nostalgia for his Torah studies of youth, the force of which, we are meant to understand, could be enough to crack through his hate.

Although “The Believer” uses a surprise ending, the entire affair quickly becomes predictable and dull. In glossing over any specifics, favoring instead a paint-by-numbers morality play, the film plays out like nothing more than sensitivity training. The late addition of tired thriller elements, by way of Jewish industrialist Ilio Manzetti (Henry Bean), only serves to underline the film’s heavy reliance on genre conventions.

The film seems to revel in its refusal to let us understand what caused Danny’s original transformation into a neo-Nazi. Danny’s only real reckoning is with his murky past and hidden feelings, and the film’s refusal to explain feels more and more like an inability to explain. By way of his past, we are given one incident in Yeshiva when Danny was a boy, parsed throughout the film. Danny, we learn, was quite the firebrand — a four-eyed rebel who challenged everything his teacher said. But it is one thing to doubt the faith of Isaac and another to advocate genocide, and as the gap between these perspectives becomes clearer, Danny’s character becomes less so.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that “The Believer” is very much a one-man show. Danny’s bilious partners in hate crime lack any gravitas or threat — they’re your typical bumbling stooges who just happen to dress like neo-Nazis. Billy Zane’s oversexed, underdeveloped character is so insubstantial that he feels like a joke. He’s wearing a shaggy wig and wire-frame glasses that suggest he’s an intellectual Fascist, though nothing in his dialogue or onscreen presence really substantiates it. Danny’s challengers outside his Nazi clique are similarly thin, too scattered and random to foment any significant discourse.

Without any substantial counterpoint to Danny, we are left with his own inner turmoil, which would be fine if we were given anything more than the occasional glimpse into the reasons behind his agro-intellectual routine. “You’re not like the others, are you?” a love interest asks him at the film’s start, and “The Believer” is content to leave it at that. No one argues with this guy, and any desire to listen to Danny’s regurgitation of master/slave morality, a role Gosling reprises in the recent Sandra Bullock vehicle “Murder by Numbers,” is quickly lost. Once Danny’s steely demeanor is cracked by the tales of Holocaust survivors, everything thereafter feels on the verge of a breakthrough, and the plot continues to lurch along with such salient inevitability as to become exhausting.

If the film is saved by anything, it is Gosling’s riveting performance as Danny. His presence alone is so powerful and forceful as to render “The Believer” worth watching. Writer/director Henry Bean is aware that all the film’s chips lay on Gosling, and he allows him to prowl the film with enough intensity to carry much of it. At the film’s start, as Danny brutally assaults a Jewish student, Gosling moves with such force and speed that the camera barely keeps up with him. Gosling’s readings of Danny’s inflamed rhetoric feel real, and truly frightening. The performance is enough to fill out an otherwise inchoate character that the script barely seems to engage.

Ultimately “The Believer” is a one-trick pony; the moment its premise begins to lose its bite, the rest of the film falls flat alongside it. The potential for a fascinating and scary portrait of self-loathing is lost by an inability to fully understand Danny’s character. And without that understanding, “The Believer” is left with nothing but a stale plot and a flat cast.

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