by David Lamble
The recent epidemic of desecrations at American Jewish cemeteries – tombstones overturned, the dead disrespected, the living traumatized – brings to mind a powerful, disturbing 2002 film whose young lead, shaggy-haired and disarmingly boyish, would strike many as all wrong for the role. But one of Canadian-born star Ryan Gosling's talents has been to flesh out a dazzling range of troubled boys. In director Henry Bean's The Believer, Gosling's Danny Balint has the sad-eyed intensity of a soul whose complex love-hate relationship with his Jewish identity has sent him into a tailspin, emerging as a neo-Nazi skinhead.
From moments of skin-crawling violence when Danny mugs a young Yeshiva student on a New York subway, to Lenny Bruce-like comic absurdity as he riffs about the "sinister" influence of Jewish men on a range of activities from land reform to oral sex, Gosling can make you feel you're witnessing a man in the throes of an unbearable passion. It's a tribute to a style of acting largely missing from the big screen since the 70s. At the core of Gosling's grasp of such disparate characters may be his own lonely days trapped as a special education student in Cornwall, Ontario, an isolated Canadian town known for its paper mill and proximity to the St. Lawrence Seaway. Gosling says that while he wasn't learning to read or add, he was getting a grasp on the people around him.
"I was always kind of watching. I was never really in anything, but I was kind of outside and watching it. All I could really do is think about how I felt about it all."
Gosling says coming from a Mormon family also helped him play characters who love perhaps too intensely. "I'm not particularly religious, but there are a lot of fanatics that I grew up with. They would have these kind of testimonies on Sunday. They would get up, and it was coming from their guts how much they believed. It was this amazing expression of emotion, but there was always this resentment against it because they couldn't exist without it. They knew they needed it, they didn't know where they were outside of it, they loved it so much that they hated it."
After filming this brutally intense role, very loosely based on a real-life Jewish neo-Nazi fanatic outed and driven to suicide by exposure on the front page of The New York Times, Gosling said he never wanted to utter the word "Jew" in anger again.
DVD special features include a thought-provoking commentary from director Henry Bean, an Anatomy of a Scene segment about the real-life person whose behavior inspired the film, plus theatrical trailer, scene access, and English and Spanish subtitles.