Owen Gleiberman and Lisa Schwarzbaum
February 09, 2001 AT 05:00 AM EST


First came despair: On the first day I was given a promotional baby-doll T-shirt bearing the vulgar and incomprehensible message ”I sucked it good.” This might have had something to do with a short film on the schedule but I’ll never know, so turned off was I by the selling tactic. O Sundance, with your high-altitude hysterias and disposable fads, your fratty crudeness and arty poses!

Then came hope: On the second day, I saw The Believer, Henry Bean’s uncompromisingly difficult, intellectually rigorous, utterly riveting drama about a ferociously bright young man who turns from his Orthodox Jewish upbringing to become a neo-Nazi. The premise is based on a true story about a Jew who rode with the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s, but the writer, also making his feature directorial debut, diverges quickly to much more provocative territory: How is hate for one’s religion intertwined with love?

The Believer goes where American History X did not, to a deeper understanding of why one skinhead could be so smart — and yet so damned. To which end, the extraordinary performance of 20-year-old Ryan Gosling, as the fallen yeshiva student Danny Balint, is the revelation of the festival.

There’s no religion in The Deep End, set in Lake Tahoe, Calif. But there’s much watery imagery, including a pet-fish tank, a dripping water faucet, and a lake. In an effort to protect her gay teenage son (Jonathan Tucker), an overburdened mother (Tilda Swinton) becomes embroiled in a murder investigation and ends up the target of a blackmailer (Goran Visnjic). (The plot is based on Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s 1947 novel The Blank Wall, adapted by Max Ophuls in 1949 as The Reckless Moment.) The artful filmmakers, Scott McGehee and David Siegel (Suture), luxuriate in calculated compositions that invoke mood, if not meaning.

The still-life motif continues in In the Bedroom — with shots of furniture and sunsets that mean to say ”My, how life goes on” — but there’s more emotional access in this accomplished feature-film directorial debut of actor Todd Field (survivor of Eyes Wide Shut). Based on ”Killings,” a story of New England domestic melancholy by the late Andre Dubus, with a sensitive screenplay by Rob Festinger, Bedroom follows the lives of a genteel couple (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek) after their talented only son (Nick Stahl), dawdling in love with an older woman (Marisa Tomei), is murdered. High compliment: Field is as attuned to the spirit of Dubus as Paul Schrader is to the writing of Russell Banks in Affliction.

Writer-director Patrick Stettner’s static compositions imitate the visual vocabulary of Neil LaBute — barren office tableaux, airless transit-lounge settings. Which is fine, except that LaBute’s vision is so much his own that The Business of Strangers — universally known around Park City as In the Company of Women — doesn’t quite clear the high bar it sets for itself. Here we’ve got a hard young businesswoman (Julia Stiles, who excels at sullenness) urging an older, more senior colleague (Stockard Channing, who excels at everything) to mess with the head of a male stranger (Frederick Weller) one night at a sterile hotel. But who’s messing with whom? And what’s Stettner’s point about the relationship between post-feminists and first-wave sisters who climbed the ladder the hard way? The shots of characterless hotel rooms and lobbies are mum.

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