Directed by: Henry Bean
Written by: Henry Bean
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Billy Zane, Theresa Russell, Summer Phoenix, Ronald Guttman
Inner conflicts rarely remain confined to thoughts, and when they reach a certain boiling point, they spill over to outward actions. The Believer displays a battle that ails this young man with how he fights off his fledgling Jewish faith and his neo-Nazi beliefs.
Since his childhood, Danny (Ryan Gosling) has pushed back on Jewish teachings that others have accepted gladly. He interprets the texts in a different way and perceives God to ultimately be a bully. Now in his mid-20s, he has become a violent neo-Nazi, who runs into a new crowd of anti-Semitic intellectuals that nurture his beliefs in a different way.
Similar beliefs with different methods of implementation arise through this narrative and it further complicates the malleable mind of Danny. A character, who seems sure of his harmful beliefs, yet displays an intense struggle. The dueling ideals in his mind force him to choose what kind of neo-Nazi he wants to be. He could be the type that pushes random Jewish folks in the street or be the more sophisticated ones Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane), who opposes violence. Danny struggles with choosing between the two, but also with how he conflicts with a faith that still lingers in his mind. The two sides have similar ideas but remain opposed to the best way to act on it. The more violent group believes in forcefully attacking the Jewish population while Zampf’s faction looks at it through the political lens. No better way to harm a group of people than by doing it through the economic and legislative lens. Danny finds himself in that divide and doesn’t fit either perfectly.
As much as he hates the faith and what God represents, he finds himself still drawn to it at times. A psychological clash that pushes him to his limits. That visual struggle comes to fruition clearly when he wraps part of the Torah under his shirt while also doing the Nazi salute. A horrifying image but one that shows that the young man has not fully gone over to the dark side of being a complete anti-Semite. It’s hard to say, really, what redeeming qualities he has besides how warped his mind gets from the different ideologies around him. Through all of the hatred he espouses, there are moments where he fights back and realizes his actions will cause inexplicable harm. It’s one thing to push someone down on the street but to possibly bomb a synagogue is a different level of evil.
I can’t help but compare this film to American History X with how it handles someone seeking redemption for their past actions. In a way, it feels like a prequel to that film, before any mass damage occurs and when Danny commits something truly heinous in the name of his belief system. Both films capture men exhibiting similar hopes to find some redemption and it feels as relevant as ever in the year 2020, unfortunately.
Ryan Gosling taking a role like this surprised me, as he’s had to battle the pretty boy label from his other works. He gives a layered and textured performance as Danny, and really encapsulates that internal struggle. With this and plenty of his other more stoic work, he displays his multitude of range and how he can go from having brilliant comedic timing in The Nice Guys to something as raw and heart-wrenching as the performance in The Believer.
Much of the content can be described as disturbing but the psychological battle taking place makes the journey we take with Danny to be one of value. I certainly do understand anyone who would be opposed to shining any light to this type of character, but this struggle carries over to different belief systems that run a fine line between extremism and advocacy. Gosling’s performance truly brings that out as Danny goes back and forth on his actual belief system with respect to the forces around him.