What makes men like Hitler and Charles Manson so disturbing? Plenty of people walk around with psychotic logics and don’t have much of an effect on others. It’s the ones who possess an innate charisma and ability to mix insights within madness — creating a cleverly packaged confusion that’s so alluring, believable and alive — that people follow without really thinking.
This is not the profile of Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling), a young Jew garnering an unquenchable hatred toward his religious schooling by posing as a neo-Nazi. The thin and wiry skinhead Balint, who bears a remarkable likeness to actor Edward Norton, is taking out his aggressions on his own race and religion, like a punk rocker rejecting his “Leave it to Beaver” suburban upbringing. His “articulately” expressed ideas are immediately embraced by neo-fascist organizers Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell) and Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane). Balint’s tragic persona proves to be too desirable for Lina’s daughter, Carla (Summer Phoenix), who hastily adheres herself to him like a lonely businessman clings to a cheap prostitute.
Because of similar shot techniques and Gosling’s likeness to Norton, The Believer will no doubt induce impressions of American History X — a well-respected, well-received and well-made film that successfully managed both a motherly sympathy and soul-crushing horror toward its neo-Nazi main character, Derek Vinyard (Norton). But that’s where the likenesses end, because at no time is Balint ever truly convincing in his appropriated personality. It all begins with skinhead Balint harassing a clearly Jewish subway passenger, following him out on the street, knocking a book out of his hand, handing it back to him, and then slugging the poor guy. Director-writer Henry Bean’s attempt at a momentous metaphor of Balint’s inner conflict turns the character into a borderline idiot, and it goes on.
Balint seems to move through the film, impressing people left and right with his intellectual abilities to convince. But if we weren’t told he was articulate, we’d never know it, because blanket anti-Semitism using the “old” reasons doesn’t wash with the audience of today. Much more complexly developed arguments are necessary to make a film like this work, and even though The Believer tries, it never quite reaches into any powerful discourses or epiphanies. It kills most, if not all, food for thought with its premature and lopped-off philosophies. Great conceptual potential exists close to the surface, like when Lina tells a reporter, “I think anti-Semitism today is largely a Jewish phenomenon — wouldn’t you agree?” But like most pregnant possibilities in the film, the idea is aborted as we’re flung back into the script’s inherent, choppy confusion.
You could call this movie half-baked (because of its severe lack of maturation) or over-baked (Bean has been working on this idea for almost 20 years; he could have been way too close to the project to see it clearly). At times, events meant to be intense and serious become almost comic, due to inadequate development and hit-you-over-the-head externalizations of conflict — like when Balint secretly wraps a tallith cloth around his waist under his neo-Nazi garb, or when he embraces the Torah when he and his skinhead buddies vandalize a synagogue.
Things get downright ridiculous when Balint starts giving his confused shiksa girlfriend Hebrew lessons — she craves and devours Judaic rituals as if they were exotic and satisfying new sexual positions. The quality of acting is just as deficient as the script and timing, with watery to just plain bad performances across the board, including higher-profile participants Zane and Russell. Bad lighting and painfully unconvincing monologues by Holocaust victims make The Believer difficult to swallow on any level.
How unfortunate that such a misdirected film should be released at such a crucial time in our current emotional and spiritual crisis. More useful might be a cinematic dialogue tapping into taboo topics that the news or politicians skirt (such as the international and personal conflicts arising out of violent Israeli actions against Palestinians set against a history of similar violence against Jews — all contrasted with Judaic beliefs). This could help give combatants who are at each others’ throats a paradigmatic kick toward a path of resolution.
All of the above makes The Believer the wrong movie at the right time. But if you can manage to sit through it, this film could leave you with at least one valuable truth: What you fear most, you will become.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.
Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.