The Believer

Henry Bean, USA, 2001, minutes

When I first heard about The Believer I jokingly imagined it as a bizarre superhero flick, in which the lead character would transform from mild-mannered Jewish student to Nazi thugman Clark Kent to Superman style, maybe effecting the transformation by removing his yarmulke in lieu of the thick-rimmed glasses.

Of course, it's nothing of the sort. Respected screenwriter Henry Bean's directorial debut is a serious examination of faith, its tormented central character, Daniel Balint, a man determined to test himself and his beliefs to Kierkegaardian levels - and maybe beyond.

But, the religious angle aside, there's little to distinguish The Believer from the likes of American History X and Romper Stomper. When you've seen one set of pumped up tattoo festooned skinheads doing their thing you've pretty much seen them all. Hell, there's even the obligatory comedy fat one, the sort who "wouldn't last a day in Hitler's army," as Henry Rollins wryly put it.

The film's USP unfortunately also strains its credibility. While Bean took inspiration from a real case in the 60s when a Jewish man joined the KKK, his attempt to update the story to the here and now, to a world of online hate groups and and would-be respectable Christian identity types seeking to disassociate themselves from old school racism, doesn't really come off.

One gets the impression from reading disparate texts like David Lee Roth's autobiography Crazy from the Heat (the former Van Halen frontman adopting a surprisingly serious tone when it comes to his religion) and Norman G Finkelstein's The Holocaust Industry, that nearly 40 years of historical development, centering around the relationship between American Jews and Israel have been somewhat ignored in Bean's treatment. To give but one example, where are the JDL in the film and might not Danny have found an outlet there?

But, then, Bean is American and Jewish and I'm neither, so it's entirely conceivable he knows something I don't...

As it is, where The Believer worked for me it was down to Ryan Gosling's compelling performance at the heart of the film. Unlike Edward Norton in American History X, Gosling works with his director and the material, keeping ego and narcissism in check.

Review by Keith Hennessey Brown
Written for EUFS Programme Spring 2003