The Believer is not an easy movie to watch. Pure, unfiltered racism bursts from the neo-Nazis at its center, vicious enough to make even the most moderate or non-religious viewer squirm. But trying not to be totally engrossed by this formidable film would be useless, for few films in recent memory have presented a main character with such agonizing psychological conflict, or tackled radical religious themes with such fearlessness and skill.
Written and directed by Henry Bean, The Believer is based on the true story of Daniel Burrows, an American Nazi and KKK member in the 1960s who, as a New York Times reporter eventually revealed, was actually Jewish. Here, Burrows is an articulate, highly intelligent young man named Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling), who dreams of killing Jews and “making an impact” in the modern neo-Nazi Fascist movement. Leaders of the movement, including Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane) and Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell) hesitate to encourage Balint’s intense anti-Semitism and reckless attempts at assassinations and bombs. Meanwhile, reporter Guy Danielsen (A.D. Miles) obtains proof that Balint is Jewish, which, if revealed, would ruin Balint both professionally and personally.
As a character, Danny Balint astounds and fascinates. Unlike the stereotypical skinhead obsessed simply with brute strength and simpleminded racism, Balint is incredibly cerebral in his hate, making even age-old arguments about Jews’ control of media and lack of masculinity seem the products of careful research. Yet even as he yearns to wipe out the Jewish people, he retains great respect, even reverence, for Judaism. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, when Balint and his thug buddies ransack a synagogue before planting a bomb under the pulpit, Balint chastises the others for touching the Torah scrolls and, later, carefully tapes the ripped paper back together. It’s a heart-wrenching example of how deeply Balint’s faith is actually engrained in him, and brings needed sympathy for a character whose Nazism would typically dehumanize him.
More than anything, the film is a character study, and thankfully Gosling is up to the task. That modern audiences can sympathize with a neo-Nazi and listen, enraptured, as he explains that anti-Semitism is a natural human instinct testifies to Gosling’s complete command of his character. The entire film rests on the charisma and emotional complexity he brings to Balint. We see all sides of him; the society dropout quick to throw a punch, the budding leader, the carefully schooled student of Judaism. Flashback scenes show young Balint (played by Jacob Green) as a confrontational adolescent in yeshiva classes, arguing with his teacher that God is a “conceited bully” that ought to destroy him on the spot. Later, Balint teaches his girlfriend Carla Moebius (Summer Phoenix) how to read and write Hebrew, yet speaks with disdain about the fundamentals of Judaism. “The Jews love to separate things,” he says, “as if one little scrap of this is going to completely contaminate that.”
As a character study, however, the film comes up short in its explanation of what made Balint reject his own culture so fully and so aggressively. The flashback scenes establish him as a fundamentally contrarian type of person, given to questioning everything and viewing the strict Jewish traditions with contempt, but so are many Jews and they don’t become neo-Nazis. The film longs for an inciting incident or past trauma that would offer some insight, but doesn’t deliver. Instead, it seems to suggest that even Balint himself doesn’t know. But he’s such a complex character who goes to such radical extremes that this is hardly a satisfying answer.
Still, this lingering question does not seriously affect the film’s pulsing energy, razor-sharp writing or surprisingly edgy attitude toward its subject matter. From the tense opening scene with hardly any dialogue, The Believer sets up its tough, masculine vigor and establishes that nothing in this film will be dealt with gently. In an age when political correctness reigns and all sides of a controversial issue must be given equal attention, The Believer comes as a bit of a shock. It can hardly be said to present Nazism and Judaism equally, as the film spends the vast majority of its running time with Balint and his Nazi/Fascist friends. Aside from stirring up feelings of pity, perhaps, for the innocent Jews Balint and his friends bully, the film does not imply that Balint is wrong to reject his Jewishness. His racism is reprehensible, undoubtedly, but the film never explicitly defends Judaism, the way films like Schindler’s List or Fiddler on the Roof do almost reverently.
This risky choice may cost the film some viewers, but more importantly, it forces those who do watch to examine a very real group of people for whom such radicalism and hate is a way of life, and the effect is far more chilling and far more relevant today. As a movie about a conflicted and troubled young man and as a work of modern social commentary, The Believer demands our attention.