"It’s about the incomprehensible," insists Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling) in a religious discussion early in Henry Bean’s The Believer. "Not about the idiotic." Then Danny and his skinhead cohort proceed to punch it out with the two yarmulke’d waiters with whom they’ve been arguing. Danny’s remark could serve as the opening epigraph for this intense, brave, flawed examination of the extremes of good and evil, of faith and reason. Instead Bean chose a quote from Catullus: "I hate and I love. Who can tell me why?"
That "why?" has provoked generations of arrested adolescents. In an opening flashback, Danny is a cocky, begoggled punk getting the better of a rabbi in a dispute over the story of Abraham and Isaac. The contradiction between God’s omnipotence and the existence of evil is a favorite topic for fledgling apostates of all faiths, and here Danny points out with bullying lucidity that the issue is not good or evil but power: God orders Abraham to sacrifice his son because he’s a bully; Abraham agrees because he’s a wimp. It’s debasing, not elevating, and Danny doesn’t want to back down before anyone, especially God.
Flash forward to the present and the New York subway, where a skinhead is brutalizing a bespectacled kid in a yarmulke. It’s no big surprise that Danny is the one doing the kicking. And like Edward Norton’s brownshirt in the less ambitious American History X, he’s as formidable verbally as he is physically. At a meeting of fern-bar fascists headed by Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane) and Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell), Danny electrifies everyone by bringing up the unfashionable idea of killing Jews. He finds the group halfhearted; they’re practically liberals by the standards of, say The Reilly Factor. They, however, find Danny charismatic.
And sexy — what is it about up-and-coming actors playing fascists that is a turn-on? Danny’s articulate, ambivalent megalomania gets the attention of Carla (Summer Phoenix in an inspired if almost non-existent performance), Moebius’s sullen daughter. Although she seems to fathom his secret identity, she’s drawn by the fanaticism of his blasphemy. She also likes the rough stuff and, as she notes in a tart double entendre, his "tragic dimension."
The media too are attracted (The Believer is based on the true story of KKK activist Daniel Burros, who committed suicide in 1965 when he was outed as a Jew). When Times reporter Guy (A.D. Miles) queries Danny about his anti-Semitism, Danny explains that it’s not based on the usual Mein Kampf-ian nonsense of Jewish bankers and racial degeneracy — it’s about abstraction. The modern world is a Jewish disease, and the disease is abstraction, the impulse to "unravel the fabric of life until nothing is left but nothingness without end . . . " So it’s not so much the Jews that Danny hates but the human condition, and his own intelligence that makes him aware of it and separates him from the brute herd of the happily ignorant. The Believer can be seen as a kind of Bad Will Hunting, where Danny tries to shake off the shackles of being smart in order to be liberated as lumpen thug.
In a way, Bean’s film is about all believers, the dilemma of those who wish to embrace the incomprehensible but hate the idiotic, who long to take things on faith but refuse to be duped or victimized. But its Jewish specificity is volatile, tragic, and sometimes very funny. In an Altman-esque scene, Danny is reunited at a synagogue with old yeshiva friends, and they engage in a coruscating, overlapping dialogue touching on topics ranging from the Holocaust to Israeli nationalism. In a less lighthearted moment, Danny and his fellow thugs are arrested and sent to sensitivity training, where they’re made to listen to the horror stories of Holocaust survivors. Disgusted by the broken victims’ passivity, Danny urges them to "kill their enemies." Perhaps most disturbing is a sequence in which Danny and his colleagues desecrate a synagogue and he lovingly retrieves a defiled Torah; a close-up of its black characters cutting into the torn void of the parchment evokes the dreaded, beguiling "nothingness without end."
So why does a nice Jewish boy turn Nazi? The Abraham-and-Isaac story suggests the father might be to blame, but here The Believer comes up frustratingly short. As Bean would tell you, Shakespeare, Milton, Dostoyevsky, and Kafka never felt the need to explain their characters’ extreme behavior. The Believer is not in that league, though Gosling’s performance at times achieves a Nietzschean grandeur. Despite sharp dialogue and brilliant individual scenes, Bean has trouble putting all the pieces together, and his resolution — self-destructive anti-Semitism giving way to self-destroying Christian love — is hard to believe.