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Believer, The | Reelviews Movie Reviews



Believer, The | Reelviews Movie Reviews

When one speaks of cultural relevance, some movies capture
it in the moment (oftentimes dating the production in the process). Others
grasp it as if looking in a rearview mirror. But there’s a small group, either
through clairvoyance or happenstance, that achieve it years or decades ahead of
time. The Believer is one such film; its themes seem more relevant two
decades after its release than they did when it reached theaters in 2001.

The directorial debut of Henry Bean (who wrote the
screenplays for both Internal Affairs – the good – and Basic Instinct 2 – the bad) offers numerous challenging ideas but falls short when it
comes to character development and motivation. The narrative is scattershot –
events happen too quickly, transitions are frequently missing or truncated, and
certain aspects aren’t believable. Although the movie uses flashbacks to
explore why the main character, Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling), has adopted the
philosophies he espouses, there’s still something missing.

Danny grew up Jewish but, as a child, he pushed back against
orthodox interpretations of the Torah. As an adult, he has repudiated Judaism
altogether, opting to become a neo-Nazi and partnering with 21st
century fascists Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane) and Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell).
Although Curtis and Lina disagree with Danny’s virulent antisemitism (they
perceive fascism as an economic and political philosophy not necessarily tied
to race), they are impressed by his passion and oratorical skills and believe
he can be an asset to the movement. After beginning a relationship with Lina’s
daughter, Carla (Summer Phoenix), who is also sleeping with Curtis, Danny exhibits
conflicted emotions regarding Jewish iconography. Although he violently attacks
a Jew in the streets and attempts to shoot another, he shows a fascination for
the Torah and, at her request, begins to teach Carla Hebrew. Danny’s evolving
conflict is evident in a bizarre scene where he combines a Nazi salute with a

Although The Believer does an adequate job
postulating how a disaffected Jewish youth might not only repudiate his
heritage but become hostile toward it, the film does not effectively flesh out
Danny as a fully formed individual. Oftentimes, he appears more like a writer’s
construct. The situation is exacerbated with Carla – a lifelong fascist, her
sudden fascination with Judaism is inexplicable and unexplained. Her character
represents one of The Believer’s biggest problems because everything
about her is forced and artificial. Her motivations are as obtuse as her
feelings about Danny and Curtis. When asked by Danny why she is with him while
also sleeping with Curtis, she responds that the sex is better with Danny.

I was not as impressed with Ryan Gosling’s performance as were
many of the contemporaneous critics who reviewed the film, although I agree
that there are several scenes in which his intensity is frighteningly effective,
the most notable being during a confrontation with journalist Guy Danielsen
(A.D. Miles), when Danny brandishes a gun. Overall, however, I found Gosling’s
acting to be uneven, but I acknowledge that this could be more the fault of the
screenplay than the performer.