When The Believer, co-written and directed by Henry Bean, was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, it did not make the task of finding a distributor any easier. Although virtually any other film winning such an accolade would assuredly result in an instant bidding war (if not an outright purchase), The Believer was an entirely different proposition – its subject matter, concerning the stranger-than-fiction case of an Orthodox Jew who has become a neo-Nazi, apparently precluded it from being snapped up. Inspired by the case of Daniel Burros, a member of the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan who killed himself after being confronted about his heritage by a New York Times reporter in 1965, The Believer attempts to examine these two mutually exclusive worldviews through a similarly contradictory young man of twenty-two, Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling). It was ultimately picked up and broadcast by cable channel Showtime, and even then it encountered some unintended resistance - its premiere was delayed due to the attacks of September 11th. Bean himself noted, in an article written for Sight and Sound in December of 2001, that he was convinced the film's ambiguities and ironies would be lost in the subsequent political climate.
When we first encounter Danny, he is harassing a yeshiva student on a subway in New York City. He follows the young man up to the street and beats him, quickly introducing two of the more fascinating aspects of Danny's character: he refers to the boy as "yeshiva bucher" (yeshiva boy), which glaringly tips his cap as to his identity (most skinheads, I would venture to say, do not possess functional knowledge of Hebrew); and, as the student refuses to fight back, it only aggravates and further instigates Danny's rage. This incendiary beginning, it should be noted, takes place as the opening titles are being intercut with the action on screen.
A flashback then introduces us to Danny as a yeshiva bucher himself, debating with his instructor the implications of the story of Abraham and his obedience to God's command that he kill his son Isaac – Danny interprets this as utter bullying on the part of God, and unadulterated weakness on Abraham's part (which he later extrapolates as one of the defining characteristics of "Jewishness," servile and "female" as he sees it). As an adult, Danny has become, in many ways, a confrontational bully himself: he flaunts his ability to reason, his knowledge of Judaism, and his articulate manner of speaking. He certainly elevates himself amongst his other like-minded, less knowledgeable compatriots, and relishes imposing violence when he deems it necessary, specifically as a means by which to exorcize (and externalize) his interior conflict.
His well-spoken vitriol soon gains the attention of Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell) and Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane), leaders of a neo-fascist movement who wish to launch a mainstream political movement but are understandably wary of Danny's explicit desire to "kill Jews" and his invocations of Nazi Germany. Specifically, Danny speaks of assassinating Ilio Manzetti (played by Bean), an important Jewish financier, in broad daylight to increase its "event" status. This bravado also attracts the attention of Lina's daughter Carla (Summer Phoenix), who is soon seen bailing him (and his cohorts) out of jail after an altercation in the streets. Carla, it is quickly determined, is both a masochist and - in one of the film's weakest contrivances - increasingly intrigued by Judaism and Danny's knowledge of it. So too are his cohorts – Bean suggests that only a Jew could be so obsessed with "Jewishness," and a few other members begin to suspect that Danny's knowledge may more likely be the result of first hand experience rather than cold, detached academia.
Matters take an increasingly frustrating and confusing turn for Danny when he is approached by local reporter Guy Danielsen (A.D. Miles) "affiliated" with the New York Times. Reluctantly accepting his invitation to an interview, Danny is shocked and outraged to learn that the reporter has uncovered information concerning his prior life as an Orthodox Jew. Interestingly, Danny never denies that he is a Jew. Rather, he threatens to sue the paper and kill himself if the story is printed. (For the record, Burros actually threatened to kill the reporter – and then himself – if the story ran. He only made good on the latter.) After fleeing upstate to a retreat, Danny again finds himself in trouble with the law after a confrontation at a kosher eatery. The court mandates that he attends sensitivity training, including interaction with Holocaust survivors. In one of the more charged sequences of the film, Danny brazenly challenges and dismisses a gentleman who tells an utterly horrific tale of having his child killed at the hands of a Nazi; however, below the surface, Danny is moved, and his eyes betray his projected impassivity.
This all leads to one of the most controversial – and most telling – sequences of the film: the desecration of a synagogue. Danny and his brethren enter with the intent of planting a bomb. As the men begin to wreak their havoc, one unsheathes a Torah and threatens to deface it, which causes an unexpected, poignant reaction in Danny. So too does his new role as a fundraiser for the fledgling fascist group – Danny is now outfitted in a suit and tie rather than his more comfortable (and blatantly defiant) swastika t-shirt and black boots – as well as chance encounters with fellow students from yeshiva. As the Believer barrels toward its conclusion, the contradictory spiral in which Danny has enveloped himself only tightens and any chance of reconciliation appears increasingly elusive.
Bean had created an impassioned, brave, and meaningful film marred greatly by its awkward narrative and lack of exposition. The story certainly moves forward, but not without gaping, glaring holes. Many of the secondary characters (by this I mean to suggest most but Danny) are merely glorified plot devices and contrivances, including a pivotal associate who gains some damaging knowledge and then inexplicably disappears. Danny's central struggle (and, more importantly, what ultimately prompted it) is largely internalized and abstract – we never learn of what transpired in the ten-year gap between his scenes as a yeshiva student and his new incarnation as a neo-Nazi. Bean only provides all too cursory glimpses of his family life (Mother absent, Father dying, Sister not amused), but no additional insight other than his overall disdain for weakness. Most ineptly presented is the character of Carla: although Danny obliges Carla's masochistic desires (somewhat cleverly denoting attraction to that which he is, in equal measure, also repelled), it is her growing interest in Judaism and continued attraction to Danny that remain unexplored beyond the machinations of the narrative.
There are also a few directorial choices that frustrate: during the Holocaust testimony sequence, Bean clumsily and cheaply inserts a black and white flashback sequence wherein Danny envisions himself in the scene (á la Alex in Kubrick's a Clockwork Orange, although not nearly as powerfully or in the same vein). Bean returns to this sequence later in the film, to equally disastrous results. The Believer appears to be more concerned with the notions and prickly questions Bean is posing than with character analysis - such probing is both fascinating and candidly personal, but simply does not translate well to the narrative as constructed. The film is essentially Gosling's to carry (he appears in virtually every frame), and he makes valuable use of what he is given; however, the narrative lapses and lack of rigor (and flashback/fantasy sequences especially, which do not resonate as intended) nearly scuttle the enterprise as a whole.
The above is not meant to suggest that The Believer is not powerful, urgent cinema – in fact, without close scrutiny the film strangles with an ugly, albeit slick, grip. Even with close attention, the film succeeds on various levels almost in spite of itself. As it is, I suspect this drama plays more powerfully on the page, although there is certainly more than enough to rivet attention to the screen throughout its 99-minute duration.
Video: The Believer is presented in an anamorphic transfer with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. It is primarily constructed with hand-held shots, which adds to the subject matter's immediacy, and, as director Bean notes, its (and its protagonist's) instability. The film was photographed in twenty-nine days on a minimal budget, largely with a film stock that could readily utilize minimal lighting – hence, the film often appears grainy. That being said, however, cinematographer Jim Denault's rawness and lack of polish fits the film's overall tone (and enhances it) and does not overly distract. I should also note that there is an abrupt layer change at the 75:30 mark which is quite jarring and completely unnecessary.
Audio: Presented in DD 2.0 stereo and DD 5.1, the Believer DVD sounds great. The score, by Joel Diamond, is evocative, well rendered, and well used. There is not much surround activity overall in its sound design, and accordingly the front speakers get most of the action. Dialogue proves easy to hear throughout, and the music is balanced nicely into the mix. Generally well done.
Extras: On board is a feature length commentary track with writer/director Bean and producer Christopher Roberts. Their tone is conversational throughout, and the two to reminisce regarding shooting locations, post production, and the general constraints of low-budget filmmaking. Regrettably, some much needed elaboration is not to be found, although they do discuss a few scenes which were conceived and/or shot that would have added exposition. I also enjoyed some of the perverse humor expressed – Roberts tells of the difficult in finding a swastika t-shirt; one had to be ordered from the internet, but no one wanted to give out their credit card information so as to avoid a mailing list. Roberts ultimately gave his info and claims that he still receives periodic mail.
Also included is the Sundance Channel featurette Anatomy of a Scene (29:15), which includes interviews with Gosling, Bean, Roberts, and editor Lee Percy among others. The featurette specifically explores the pivotal scene of Danny with the Torah he has removed the synagogue after its desecration. These Anatomy of a Scene featurettes are almost always enjoyable and informative, and that is certainly the case here.
There is also a director interview with Bean (16:25) which covers quite a bit of valuable ground, including the inspiration of his screenplay (the Burros case), the fact that representatives of the Simon Wiesenthal Center did not approve of the film (but that representatives of the Anti-Defamation League did), and the extreme care and thoughtfulness which was taken in the desecration scene (i.e., the Torah used does not contain the name of God, the books thrown were purchased from a used book store, profanity was intentionally not directed toward the ark, etc.)
Also included are weblinks to Palm Pictures, The Believer's official site, and res.com.
For the DVD release of a film as controversial as this, the extras included are both welcome and wholly appropriate, and add some needed texture to the themes and ideas explored in the film.
Final Thoughts: An undeniably powerful and thought-provoking film, bolstered by a visceral, charismatic performance by Ryan Gosling, The Believer succeeds much more as a theological / intellectual debate than as a film. Its narrative is forceful and propulsive, but extremely flawed in design. In all fairness, the deck is stacked so heavily against this film working at all (its central contradiction being so glaring that Bean himself once thought this film could only be presented as an absurdist comedy of sorts) that it's truly a minor miracle it resonates as strongly as it ultimately does.
There are some complex, vital, and highly personal questions and themes being explored in The Believer. That many of them remain unanswered in a neat, tidy manner is not the problem – rather, it is the rudimentary means by which they are posed. Although a worthwhile, recommended DVD release, I wish that the film had furrowed more deeply into Danny's highlighted, troubled brow. Perhaps then The Believer could have more fruitfully endeavored to answer (or at minimum explore in more rigorous detail) the very question posed by Catullus that it promises to ponder at its outset: "I hate and I love... Who can tell me why?"