Showtime's upcoming original film, The Believer, is a potentially thought-provoking and often compelling movie about prejudice and identity that unfortunately falls just short of its mark.
The story, by writer/director Henry Bean and collaborator Mark Jacobson, is somewhat based on the true-life story of Daniel Burros, a Jewish neo-Nazi from Queens, N.Y., who commits suicide after a reporter from The New York Times
confronts him for being Jewish. But Daniel Balint (portrayed powerfully by Ryan Gosling), the film's protagonist, lives in the present day — and that could be the primary reason for the film's odd disconnect.
The film opens with a frightening scene in which Balint, dressed in full Nazi regalia, threatens and eventually assaults a young, yarmulke-wearing Jewish man on the subway. It's later revealed that Danny was raised an Orthodox Jew, and at a younger age — while studying in the yeshiva — was not that much different than his victim.
We then follow him and his friends to a meeting of neo-fascists led by Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell), who sees promise in the articulate young man and sends him away to a kind of sleepaway camp of bigotry to train him to be a leader in the cause. He also catches the eye of her daughter, Carla (Summer Phoenix), who is interested in him for more romantic reasons.
He comes to someone else's attention at that meeting as well: a freelance reporter who wants to "out" him as Jewish. Thus begins the internal conflict that is at the center of the movie.
While at the upstate New York camp, Danny leads his skinhead friends into a nearby synagogue to plant a bomb, only to show what his friends see as a strange reverence for — and knowledge of — its religious artifacts.
The group is caught and sentenced to "sensitivity training" in the form of talks with Holocaust survivors. It's here that the reasons why Daniel has joined the skinheads begin to emerge — he feels that the Jewish people were weak for not standing up to the Germans during the Holocaust. But it's only an indirect connection: Why would a kid two generations removed from the sorrow — whose family members, as depicted, had no connection to the genocide — feel so strongly about this?
At the end of the film, he begins to rekindle his ties to the Jewish community of his youth. Though this sets up the film's climax, Danny's motivations for doing this could have been fleshed out a little better.
The film doesn't go far enough in making that connection. Perhaps the filmmakers should have set it in the 1960s, when the Nazi atrocities were fresher in people's minds. The shorter passage of time might have made Danny's motives clearer.
Though the acting is generally excellent (despite some awkward "flashback scenes"), that lack of depth in character development mutes The Believer's punch.
debuts Sunday, Sept. 30 at 8 p.m. on Showtime.