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The East

The East emerges as an exciting piece of filmmaking from the independent scene’s hott —Matt Anderson (review...)

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After winning the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, Henry Bean’s The Believer will finally make its limited premiere in art houses across the country. The film, which was unable to find a distributor because of its controversial theme, proves yet again how Hollywood rejects thought-provoking pictures for big-budget popcorn flicks that don’t require an ounce of intelligence.

Scary but True

Based on a true story, The Believer is the story of Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling), a young neo-Nazi whose hate-filled yet articulate speeches on Judaism quickly develop a following. As he leads a small group of skinheads to terrorize his enemy — the average Jewish citizen — an intrigued local reporter writes a feature on him.

What the reporter uncovers though is more than anyone, including Balint, was ever expecting— Balint was born Jewish. As Balint deals with his suppressed religion in the spotlight, he is forced to balance his current belief that “the modern world is a Jewish disease” with the fact that, no matter how hard he tries to ignore it, he is Jewish.

Will the Real Danny Balint Please Stand Up?

While The Believer may seem a lot like American History X at first glance— both films deal with modern day anti-Semitism and feature a twenty-something male in the lead role— The Believer explores the human mind in much greater detail. Viewers are not only able to get inside Balint’s mind through various flashback sequences, but also during the quiet moments he spends alone with his girlfriend Carla (Summer Phoenix) teaching her Hebrew. Although he claims he is teaching her the language so that she can “know her enemy” better, it’s clear to viewers that deep inside he still holds the religion close to his heart. The various Jewish things that he’s kept over the years, including his old school notebook from when he was studying at a yeshiva, only emphasizes this fact more. Even though he proudly wears a red T-shirt with a swastika on the front of it, these scenes clearly demonstrate the inner struggle Balint is fighting over his personal beliefs.

Although Bean’s script helps these scenes come across as powerful as they do, the emotional performance by Gosling is what truly grabs the audience’s attention and doesn’t let go. With The Believer Gosling takes a bold step away from the roles he’s used to getting as a member of The Mickey Mouse Club. Few actors could have pulled off the intensity, the hatred and the confusion that Gosling does as Balint, and his performance, which led to a Best Actor nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards, is really what carries the film. Audiences will never question the change that takes place from the iron pumping, toe-stepping neo-Nazi they are greeted with during the film’s opening sequence to the torn and emotionally disturbed individual they are left with at the end. Gosling never loses viewers during his journey to discover his true self.

Being Good at Being so Bad

Gosling doesn’t give the only noteworthy performance in the film, however. Billy Zane (Titanic) delivers a haunting performance as Curtis Zamph, the fascist who Danny looks up on the Internet and soon joins forces with. Though Zane appears only briefly in the film, his character leaves a lasting impression on viewers by showing that there are many other forms of Anti-Semitism out there that aren’t as open or as violent as Balint and his fellow skinheads. In a way his secretive, cult-like following is almost more frightening than the crowd that follows Balint since it may be easier to comprehend a group like Zamph’s than another Hitler Youth-type organization.

From Movie of the Week to the Big Screen

Despite an engaging script and emotional performances, the fact remains that The Believer looks like the low-budget independent film it is. Aesthetically the film plays like a TV movie of the week, which was fine when it aired on Showtime but could be a problem for audiences who pay to see it in theaters.

Rather than staying within his financial budget, Bean tries to accomplish too much visually throughout the film. This causes some scenes to seem unfinished and leaves viewers wanting more. One scene during the film’s finale particularly looks like some special effects shots were left out, which sadly takes away from its dramatic impact.

Nevertheless, The Believer is a thought-provoking film that asks viewers how they would act if everything they stood for went against everything they were. It’s an emotional movie that discusses a topic many feel has left our society, but really isn’t close to being gone. Overall The Believer is that rare film that is not only deserving of the critical acclaim it has received, but also well deserving of the distributor it almost never got.