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[whitespace] 'The Believer'
Getting Under the Skinhead

'The Believer' has a unique take on racism

By Steve Palopoli

FIRST DISCOVERED at Sundance over a year-and-a-half ago, The Believer has become a hot topic upon its overdue theatrical release thanks to its crazy-controversial take on racist culture. Now, granted, any movie that features skinheads beating the crap out of people is going to be carefully picked over for evil messages, and I'm all for that. But the better films in this thankfully small slice-of-white-supremacist-life subgenre--Romper Stomper, maybe, or American History X--earn their kudos despite the fact that they're usually plenty unpleasant to watch.

The fact that The Believer was a grand-jury prize winner at Sundance should give you an idea of how well it handles this tough material. It is also, I have to say, one fucked-up film. Any movie's going to push the audience hard when it's digging into the insanity that drives militant racism, but The Believer, which debuted on Showtime earlier this year, pushes that insanity into the red with its story of a self-hating Jew who becomes a raging neo-Nazi.

Jewish Nazi, now there's a thankless job, huh? You don't make a lot of friends, unless of course you lie like a jack-booted dog to somebody about who you are. That's just what Ryan Gosling as the hopelessly confused Danny does as he draws fellow racists to him like a magnet with his charisma and his passion for frank talk about killing Jews, which apparently is considered refreshing in such circles. The stuff he spews about his reasons for hating non-Aryans in the first place is so nonsensical (and non sequitur) it would make you laugh out loud if you didn't know that lots of real-life assholes believe nearly the same thing.

Gosling is amazing in a role that demands that he never make a false move, never come off as too sympathetic on the one hand or too cartoonishly evil on the other. His Danny is a fascinating kid who's too angry to do anything with his life except set himself up in a twisted game he can't win. Like the main character himself, The Believer sometimes threatens to go completely off the deep end, but stays in sight of the nasty truths both the filmmakers and the audience are trying to get at here: the whys and hows of a true sickness.

I can't promise that The Believer delivers everything you could want in that department, but I can promise you one thing: you won't be able to look away.

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From the June 26-July 3, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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