On-line rental companies now offer democratized, unprecedented access to the annals of film history, but the copious selection can be a bit daunting and counterproductive: what, exactly, should you watch? This column hopes to help steer you towards good film and away from the bad.
The “Edward Norton Rule of Making It” states that all up-and-coming, young male actors ought to find a part as a Neo-Nazi for their big breakthrough role. Ryan Gosling, go-getter that he was, one-ups this formula for success by playing a Jewish Neo-Nazi in The Believer; such a divided, contradictory character obviously demands sensitivity in its handling, but for the vast bulk of its run-time The Believer conducts itself with the antithesis of complexity, reveling in cheap cinematic shorthands, like an intrusive, histrionic musical score or a vapidly rapid editing structure, and cartoonish supporting characters, such as the mush-faced journalist or the haughty, pedantic Yeshivah brat seen in flashbacks. Where the film requires exercised restraint, it instead offers a bright red t-shirt sporting an enormous, silk-screened swastika across its face; when it ought to hold back, it instead bursts forth with lines like, “We could fuck through a sheet, let’s try it.” The fact that Gosling manages to, just barely, eschew the caricatural quality that characterizes the filmâ€”that he could deliver a performance that approaches depth within such dreckâ€”is a great testament to his talent.
But why does his character hate the Jews, particularly when he himself is a Jew? “It’s an axiom of civilization,” he explains, “Just as man longs for woman, loves his children and fears death, he hates Jews.” Intermittently, The Believer features some intellectually-stimulating discourse on the nature of Judaism (which I suspect might be particularly intriguing for those interested in such issues, such as those of the Jewish persuasion), but for the most part, like American History X, it suffers from too much un-countered anti-Semitic speechifying. Only in the final act, when some sympathetic “just like me and you” Jews are introduced, did I remember that not all Jewish men wear fedoras and payot.
The Believer might have been a stronger, or at least more interesting, film had it provided a tempered backdrop against which Gosling could explore his crisis of self, or if it dwelt more on an issue it only address peripherally: that, in a world increasingly controlled by capital and markets, racial politics are becoming outmoded. Instead, it’s content to merely cash-in on its own potential provocation, down to a sequence in which skinheads laugh in the faces of Holocaust survivors. Don’t fall for it, readership. The Believer is nothing but a cheap-indie, not merely in its production values, which would be forgivable, but in its tone and style. If you can’t do something right or if you can’t do it well, whether due to a lack of funds or a lack of talentâ€”or worse, as here, a combination of bothâ€”you shouldn’t do it at all.