A sensation at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, where it took home the prestigious Grand Jury Prize, Henry Bean's The Believer appeared primed to spark heated discussions later in the year as it charged toward "Award Season" recognition for the powerful lead performance of Ryan Gosling as Danny Balint, a young, self-loathing Jew driven to the extreme refuge of the fascist Skinhead movement. But something happened along the way; despite glowing notices and a sure-fire hot-button topic, there wasn't a major indie distributor willing to touch the thing. And so the film languished for over a year until it finally made its premiere not in the theaters, but on the cable network Showtime, thus killing its chances for any Academy recognition (Oscar rules strictly prohibit the nomination of any films receiving their initial commercial run on television), and consigning the picture to relative obscurity. It's a shame because, unlike the majority of Sundance successes, The Believer was worthy of that high-altitude hype. Based very loosely on a real-life incident in which a young man arrested at a KKK rally was later outed as a Jew by a journalist at The New York Times, writer-director Bean, a veteran Hollywood scribe of such uniquely intelligent crime melodramas as Internal Affairs and Deep Cover, uses this story as an extreme means to explore and amplify his own struggles with the religion. As a result, his protagonist, Danny, is tormented by contradictions so violent that there's little chance he'd be able to reach 25 without incurring an aneurism. An inveterate questioner, Danny's grievances are many, and articulated with fierce conviction by Gosling in a number of fiery monologues. His profound disappointment in the way his people have historically buckled under God's will argued in a classroom flashback via the story of Abraham and Isaac has darkly flowered into a bilious rage, evinced disturbingly in the film's opening moments when Danny assaults a young Jewish student. But Danny is no mere thug; he's a hyper-intelligent hate-monger whose passionate, if misguided, outbursts impress Curtis Zampf and Lina Moebius, a pair of upscale Manhattan fascists (well played by Billy Zane and Theresa Russell). Though disapproving of his affinity for tired anti-Semitic rhetoric, the couple is taken with this capable lad's undeniable magnetism, and quickly put him to work as a fund-raising point-man in their organization. Danny's charisma also transfixes Lina's masochistic sister, Carla (Summer Phoenix) who is also conducting a semi-incestuous affair with Curtis and Guy Danielson (A.D. Miles), a New York Times reporter who has unearthed Danny's most closely guarded secret.
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The Believer is best taken as a heated disquisition rather than a character study, since it's highly unlikely that someone as intelligent as Danny could reconcile all of his contradictory impulses, which become increasingly marked when he is helplessly compelled by his Hebrew school indoctrination to repair a Torah scroll damaged by his skinhead cronies after they vandalize a temple. It's this very unquestioning subservience to an abstract, bullying God that has driven Danny from the tribe; if the belief has survived this maniacal self-doubt, how then can he advocate the mass slaughter of his people? These questions are never meant to be answered the film is after even bigger, more wide-ranging ideological game, with Danny asking the tough questions too many of his faith avoid and it's a testament to Bean's scripting and Gosling's explosive performance that these inconsistencies seem irrelevant. At its best, The Believer is a pugnacious, challenging experience that means to not only get under, but infect the skin, leaving the viewer picking at unsightly scabs for weeks. Perhaps this is why no one stepped up to distribute the film. If so, this is a disgrace; such squeamishness flies in the supposedly uncompromising face of the U.S. Independent Film movement. Despite its flaws, The Believer is one of the bravest American films in recent memory, broaching massively uncomfortable subject matter without so much as a wince. Trimark Home Video presents the film in a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. Extras include a commentary with Henry Bean, an "Anatomy of a Scene" feature from the Sundance Channel, a video interview with Bean, theatrical trailers, previews, and Web links. Keep-case.
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