Ryan Gosling, shooting off sparks, plays a brainy skinhead. As a tough, he’s magnificent. His swagger is effortlessly cruel, strutting with his lip curled and eyes mean. As a scholar, fluent in philosophy and history and religion, he’s even more intimidating. His character, Danny Balint, is not your average neo-Nazi. More than a meathead, he’s charismatic and fearless. And Jewish.
The Believer won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival and premiered on cable TV. It’s no surprise that major studios shied away from it. In one scene, Danny mercilessly pounds a yeshiva student, begging him to hit back; in another, ordering his thugs to stop vandalizing the Torah, he tends to the torn scroll with a tenderness that borders on true romance. Too bad Summer Phoenix, who plays Danny’s girlfriend, doesn’t have much to do. She takes up time that would have been more wisely spent on the film’s rich, important questions of faith and free will. In fact, all the minor characters, dwarfed by Gosling’s magnetism, are distractions here. The young actor, who so beautifully captures his character’s desperate self-loathing, puts his teen-idol peers to shame. Audiences should follow him anywhere.