Ryan Gosling, Billy Zane, Theresa Russell, Summer Phoenix

Written and Directed by Henry Bean

Now and again a young actor has a role that either defines a film or steals everything from it. In 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape a very young Leonardo DiCaprio became a teen critical darling for his role as mentally retarded teen Arnie Grape, a performance impossible to leave out when discussing the movie. In 1996’s Primal Fear, Edward Norton’s role as the accused altar boy took everyone by surprise as his performance – especially in the shocking end sequence – stole the movie right out from under Richard Gere’s feet and launched Norton to instant stardom.

Just as powerful a performance as these two examples is then 21-year old Ryan Gosling’s acting in The Believer, a film that simply could not have been without his performance.

Taking on the task of portraying a young Jewish man who is inexplicably a Neo-Nazi, Gosling is a force from the very first scene, in which he slowly tracks down and beats a young yarmulke-wearing boy. At a secret Fascist meeting his character, Danny Balint, spews hatred at the very essence of the Jewish faith, and in extremist fashion states that killing Jews is the only solution to the problem they cause.

But as the intricately-paced film sheds more on Danny’s past – flashbacks to his initial questionings of God as a student in a Jewish prep school, his sister shaking her head at his swastika-emblazoned shirt and asking “How can you wear that?” – we begin to realize that he isn’t a close-minded bigoted extremist, but a brilliant, well-versed young man who is unfortunately wrapped in an inferno of self-hate.

As I watched the film, often transfixed at the long, impassioned speeches of well-studied hate that Gosling unleashes upon the screen, three scenes in particular stood out to me, scenes that exemplify not only Gosling’s acting talent but provide seminal thought-provoking sequences in the narrative.

The first is when Danny agrees to be interviewed by a journalist at a cafe, where the journalist listens to Danny’s rants, including one flurry of colorful sentences in which he states that the Jewish man prefers fellatio over penetration because his psyche is inherently feminine, before the journalist interjects with “But how can you believe all this when you’re a Jew yourself?” Upon hearing this the transformation of Danny, from officious and venomous to surprised and vulnerable is so volatile it’s incendiary. After his denials are refuted, in exasperation he takes out a gun and threatens that if the journalist tells anyone this he’ll kill himself.

The second scene I will mention is perhaps the most uncomfortable of any film I’ve ever seen, where Danny and his fellow Neo-Nazi goons – none of whom share his deep beliefs, but merely love to hate – are ordered by the court to attend sensitivity training by listening to Holocaust survivors.

An older woman recollects how when she was commanded by an officer at the camp to have sex with him and she refused, he shot her younger sister. One of the young skinheads is heard to mutter, “I wouldn’t have fucked her either”, and chuckles with his friends. An ancient male survivor tells an even more horrible story, how he watched a Nazi soldier impale his toddler son on a bayonet and was forced to watch as his son’s blood drenched his clothes as he lay prostrate in grief. This story in particular has a profound affect on Danny, who marveled that as this happened the man did nothing.

Throughout the rest of the film, Danny will be visited by images caused by this story, where he imagines himself as the vengeful father, and then in a horrific nightmare, as the Nazi soldier.

Finally, what sequence most affected me follows the vandalization of a synagogue by Danny and his friends, where the ancient menorah is destroyed and Danny assists in breaking and defacing other precious Jewish items. But when his fellow skinheads open the scroll of the torah, Danny watches with obvious struggle as they spit on the sacred pages. When they tear a piece of it off, he rushes forward and stops them. Later, in his home, it is revealed that he saved the scroll and brought it back with him. He stuffs a Jewish prayer shawl, a tallit, into his belt and begins to quote Hebrew scripture while giving the Nazi salute. A scene that could have easily been preposterous instead is a powerful, unforgettable look at a young man whose impossibly strong but conflicting beliefs are now torn to a point undefinable.

Gosling, whose only experience in acting at that point was a stint on The Mickey Mouse Club as a kid and some Canadian television shows (including a great episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark?), is mesmerizing in his role as Danny. While it never seemed to be Gosling’s want to become a superstar, he had conversely been a critical sensation in several films following The Believer, including 2006’s Half Nelson, where he plays a crack-addicted schoolteacher.

He headlines a film that is among the most provocative one could ever hope to see. It’s a perplexing, many-layered triumph of a story, and along with Gosling’s performance The Believer is one of the best independent dramas to come out this past decade.

It asks questions and presents ideas that are controversial, but at times reasonable; incredible, but believable. Through the explosive inner struggles of Danny, I was compelled to examine faith in general and the reasoning behind the varying hate that can be a part of it. Hate for a God that can be as powerful and as passionate as love, showing that while views such as Danny’s can be easily abhorred, it’s much more difficult to understand what has caused it. Possibly too difficult for even the hater.

Image courtesy of complex.com

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