The Big Picture: The Believers (15)

Three stomps to heaven
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Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling), the white noise at the heart of The Believer, is an incredible figure in every sense of the word. A neo-Nazi given to lifting weights, assaulting frail Jewish kids and planting bombs, something about him doesn't ring true. After a fascist meeting in New York, a young woman, Carla (Summer Phoenix) whispers that corny old line, "You're not like the others, are you?". The joke and the horror of the film is that he's not. He's Jewish.

Like so many incredible stories, this one is based on fact. Daniel Burrows was a member of the American Nazi Party in the Sixties, who hid his Jewish identity for years, until The New York Times rumbled him. The same thing happens to Danny, and it's the journalist's threat to run the story that jolts this film into ugly life. "Put that in The New York Times and I'll kill myself," screams Danny. And suddenly you discover that you don't want him to die.

Danny's a monster, but his fear makes him one of us. Hitchcock once famously observed that an audience watching Psycho breathes a sigh of relief when the car containing Janet Leigh's corpse sinks safely into the swamp. We will Danny's secret to disappear in much the same way. Danny and his mates gatecrash a Jewish deli and Danny humiliates the waiter by pointing out the absurdities of kosher law. As the camera takes in the bemused reaction of his bovver-boy friends, we scan their faces, too, desperate for Danny to shut up, terrified that they're about to guess. At a weekend fascist retreat, a Nazi meathead tries to push Danny around, and Danny loses control (to the soundtrack's euphoric wails), head-butting the man until he crashes to the ground. Phew. That'll keep Danny safe for a while.

Having made the audience complicit in such madness, writer-director Henry Bean then laughs in our faces. Resistance, it turns out, is futile. Danny is obsessed by faith, as the title of the film suggests. His fury against the Jews is that they don't fight back – whether it be against the Nazis, or against their God. Flashbacks laced throughout the movie show Danny arguing with his teachers about Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, simply to please the Lord. The kid's certainly persuasive ("God's a power-drunk madman!"). Instead of rejecting religion, however, Danny-the-adult tries to create a new one; an anti-faith that has more than a little in common with the tortured defiance of Flannery O'Connor's Hazel Motes. Like Motes, Danny's rebellion is skin-deep. "Is that why you became a Nazi," scoffs Carla, "so that you could talk about Jews all day?" Danny thinks he's escaping martyrdom. Of course, he's heading straight towards it.

Such paradoxes may sound a little abstract. The extraordinary thing about Bean is that he has written a brainy script that rarely gets bogged down in words. The humour is often visual: skinheads play First World War board games as excitedly as toddlers. Danny's family life, meanwhile, is captured in a snatched moment between him and his father – Danny comes from a long line of witty, defeated men, that's all we need to know. In another scene, Danny and his friends are forced to talk to concentration-camp survivors as part of their "sensitivity training". The survivors fail to present a united front, one hissed exchange, in particular, pounding its way into our heads. Mutters one, "The Holocaust was God's punishment for disobeying his laws!". The anguished reply: "Don't talk about that in front of them!"

The danger is that some will feel not enough has been explained. But we're not at school. American History X, similarly concerned with a neo-Nazi's "transfiguration", made that mistake. It looked slick and sugary at the time. It looks even cruder now.

What the films share are extraordinary central performances. Twenty-one-year-old Gosling is cute as a rat. He's like Robert de Niro, before de Niro became everyone's favourite grumpy old man; like Tim Roth and Gary Oldman, before Hollywood turned them into affected grotesques. Actors love to play characters in disguise, but this never feels like a showcase role. Gosling can do everything: convincing as a paranoid loner, but equally plausible as a sexual being. When he's with Carla, he looks about 14: naive – daft, even.

Theresa Russell and Billy Zane as Lina and Curtis, the charismatic couple who want Danny to work for their underground fascist movement, provide the perfect foil. Ruthless talent scouts, they're all the more sinister because they never bare their teeth. Like the avuncular killer in The Vanishing, they're as concerned with eating three good meals a day as they are with causing harm. Carla (Lina's daughter, as it turns out) completes the foursome, and Phoenix makes the most of a tricky part. Her best moment comes as she sits naked astride Curtis, a tableau she's planned for Danny to see. As she turns her gaze towards him, her eyes suggest a soul lost in Hell.

Bean's point is that everyone's a double agent. In his eagerness to push that point home, however, he crams in too much towards the end. New characters are introduced who add nothing, and a sub-plot involving the assassination of a prominent Jewish businessman takes up too much time. The black-and-white fantasies about the Holocaust are also overplayed. The story is naturally atmospheric (the hand-held camera work is perfect; New York hasn't looked as molecular, as airy and strange since Annie Hall). It's naturally thrilling – what will happen when the journalist runs the story? You don't really need anything else.

For a debut, though, The Believer is astonishing. The only depressing thing is the way in which it has been received in its homeland. Despite winning the Grand Jury prize at Sundance, no distributor wants to release it. Even the television networks, "in the light of 11 September", don't want to get involved. How ironic. If any film shows up the insanity of fanaticism, it's this one. Perhaps its real crime, though, is to show that religion itself is inherently flawed.

In the climactic dream sequence, we see Danny climbing endless stairs, with a rabbi intoning, "There's nothing up there". That's quite a stance in a country where 90 per cent of the population professes to believe in a higher power. In interviews, Bean has stressed that he himself is Jewish, and that he now regularly attends synagogue. Maybe this is self-protection, maybe it's not. The fact is, it shouldn't matter what Bean is. People have a right to make godless films. Bean's made one, and it's as brilliant as it is humane.

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