Last week, we did a Shouts From the Back Row podcast on the career of Ryan Gosling, one of the lucky ones who made a very successful transition from child actor to full-fledged Hollywood star. Gosling was a very busy child actor during the 1990s, so much so that I’ve probably done more “Before They Were Stars” features on him than anyone else. After the Canadian-born actor earned himself a spot as a Mousketeer on The Mickey Mouse Club (alongside such luminaries as Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake), Gosling worked steadily on Canadian television throughout the decade and peaked by securing the title role on the kid’s adventure series, Young Hercules. Of course, Gosling knew that he would probably have to transition into serious acting if he ever hoped to sustain a career into adulthood. While he finally garnered mainstream recognition for his role in The Notebook, Gosling initially established his acting credibility with a dynamic lead performance as a Jewish Neo-Nazi in the 2001 drama, The Believer. Unfortunately, as much as the film helped put Ryan Gosling on the map, The Believer was one of those critically acclaimed catch-22s. It won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival and garnered a ton of praise, but the film’s subject matter was so controversial that no one wanted to pick it up for distribution. The Believer was scheduled for a screening on Showtime, but after 9/11, no one was in the mood for a film this dark, so it was bumped until 2002. It finally did garner a limited theatrical release, but while The Believer is still notable for featuring Ryan Gosling’s breakthrough performance, it’s never truly gotten the attention it deserves.
As the film opens, we meet a skinhead named Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling), who harasses a Jewish student on the subway, follows him out into the street and proceeds to lay a senseless beating on him. In spite of his strong anti-Semitic views, however, it doesn’t take long to learn that Danny is actually a Jew himself. The film reveals this through a series flashbacks featuring Danny when he was a young yeshiva student and was constantly arguing with his teacher about interpretations of scripture. Danny joins up with a fascist group led by Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane) and Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell) and soon becomes romantically involved with Lina’s daughter, Carla (Summer Phoenix). They are impressed with Danny’s passion and intelligence, even if they are somewhat taken aback by the intensity of his hatred towards Jews. Danny joins their organization and winds up aligning himself with a gang of violent Neo-Nazis, who love to vandalize synagogues before planting bombs in them. While Danny openly advocates killing Jews and even proposes assassinating a prominent Jewish banker, he seems reluctant to go through with any actual killing and he also expresses visible disgust about his fellow skinheads’ complete ignorance of Judaism. Of course, this eventually draws suspicion from the most violent skinhead, who believes that Danny might be a fraud. Of course, Danny also runs further risk of being exposed after he is tracked down and interviewed by a journalist from the New York Times, who knows about Danny’s Jew background. It’s during this scene where Danny passionately reveals his anti-Semitic views and we get to see Ryan Gosling display his true acting chops.
The Believer was actually inspired by the true story of Daniel Burros, a Jew who was a member of the American Nazi Party during the 1960s before joining the United Klans of America. After his Jewish background was exposed in a New York Times article on October 31, 1965, Burros committed suicide that very same day. The head of the American Nazi Party would actually state that Burros’ suicide was due to an “unfortunate Jewish psychosis”. Like Daniel Burros, Danny Balint is very clearly a self-hating Jew whose anti-Semitic views are driven by a feeling of shame about how victimized his people have been. Obviously, it must have been an incredible challenge to play a character who expresses these hateful views with such vigor while still dealing with secret conflict and inner turmoil, but Gosling pulls it off with a phenomenal performance. He echoes Edward Norton’s memorable role in American History X, portraying an obviously bright, but misguided youth who wastes his immense intelligence on spreading hate. In most circumstances, Gosling’s performance here would have been a shoo-in for an Academy Award nomination, but since The Believer played on cable before it was officially released in theaters, it wouldn’t have been eligible (for another example of this, see Linda Fiorentino’s performance in The Last Seduction). But even if Gosling’s performance had been eligible for Oscar consideration, it seems unlikely that the Academy would have touched it. One of the film’s standout scenes is when Danny is forced to take sensitivity training and meet some Holocaust survivors. The scene brilliantly demonstrates Danny’s self-hatred as he angrily criticizes the survivors for being victims and not fighting back, but even though the points he spouts are garbage, the genuine passion he displays is pretty frightening.
Roger Ebert probably summed it up best in his review when he wrote: “The film’s hero is so articulate in his retailing of anti-Semitic beliefs that his words, I thought, might find the wrong ears”. So, does this mean that Ryan Gosling’s performance didn’t get the accolades it deserved because it was TOO good? While it’s very unlikely that anyone would radically change their personal views and become an anti-Semite simply from watching The Believer, it’s easy to see why a film like this would make Hollywood very uncomfortable. The Believer is one of those films which is single-handedly elevated by its lead actor’s strong performance. The film’s director is Henry Bean, who had worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood for years on such films as Internal Affairs and the underrated Deep Cover. His direction is a bit sloppy at times, his narrative is sometimes unfocused and has some awkward transitions, and there are some unnecessary fantasy scenes (involving Danny imagining himself as both a Nazi and a Holocaust victim) which don’t really work at all. But thankfully, the material is so strong and thought-provoking and Gosling acts his role with such fire and energy that the whole thing still works. The movie builds up to a very ambiguous ending which could have easily come across as ham-fisted, but is actually pretty effective. Of course, Ryan Gosling has gone on to become one of the most acclaimed young actors in Hollywood, and it seems inevitable that he will win an Academy Award sometime in the future. However, it was The Believer which made this possible and ensured that Gosling wouldn’t simply be remembered as the kid from The Mickey Mouse Club.