At first glance, The Believer looks like another of those hard-hitting, near-exploitative films about neo-Nazi thuggery. It's got the worryingly charismatic lead you think you know from American History X and Romper Stomper, opening with Ryan Gosling putting his size nines in. But it unfolds quite differently: Danny Balint is actually immersed in what he claims to hate (Judaism), making Henry Bean's film less a "thriller" about neo-Nazism than a subtle drama about faith's complexities - - and a gripping, intelligent one at that.
Still, try telling Hollywood that. Major distributors wouldn't touch the film, so it went straight to the Showtime TV network. Maybe they were fighting shy of the anti-Semitic rhetoric Balint spouts; if so, they've confused content with message. Bean (Jewish, incidentally) calls the film "philo-Semitic", the point being that Balint's articulate decimation of Judaism is bound up with his love for it.
It's daring enough of Bean to make this conflicted figure the film's engine, but a greater achievement still to pull it off so keenly. Much of that success rests squarely on Gosling's shoulders, and while some characters suffer by contrast with his Balint - - mainly Carla (Summer Phoenix), Balint's masochistic lover - - Gosling's acute delivery is more than worth the sacrifices, leaving even Ed Norton's turn in American History X standing. It's a brilliant performance, nailing every shade of contradiction within the Jewish skinhead.
But The Believer is a film of impeccable understatement, too, from the slyly agitated soundtrack to the subtle use of hand-held camerawork. Emphasising talk and ideas rather than action or stylistic flourishes, Bean never gives in to pat resolutions, never lets the reins slip. Streets ahead of the old model, then - and while US distributors can't handle it, we won't often see its type.
The genre might be familiar but The Believer tackles its hot potato of a subject with real subtlety, depth and intelligence. The focus is laid squarely on Danny Balint, but he's fascinating enough to power the film - - and it certainly is powerful stuff.