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Palm Pictures presents
"If Hitler had not existed, the Jews would have invented him."
DVD ReviewA Jewish Nazi. That's about all you need to know about this movie, because, really, that's about all you'll find. Yes, it's an odd, upsetting, oxymoronic concept—but is it enough to sustain interest in a feature-length motion picture? If you think that it is, if the revulsion at the very idea is enough to yoke you through, you'll probably like The Believer more than I did. Because aside from taking self-loathing to previously unforeseen levels, there isn't a whole lot to this.
Ryan Gosling plays Danny Balint, who has shaved his head, read Mein Kampf, and sports a t-shirt with a huge swastika on it. A New Yorker, Danny finds young Jewish men on the subway and beats them up for sport. The catch, of course, is that he's a Jew himself. The film reveals this to us early on as if it were a great shock, but take one look at the cover art on the DVD case, and you've probably figured out the secret already yourself. Danny spews hate, with talk of white pride and what he sees as the perverse sexual predilections of Jewish women; he's just smart enough to put coherent sentences together, but that's about where it ends.
And in the absence of a proper story, the clichés take over. Danny gloms on to a white supremacy group, headed up by Billy Zane in crazed messiah mode ("That's why I'm a Fascist. It's the only form of government that can address our fundamental needs"), and he's ably assisted by Theresa Russell, who seems to have read up on Acting Like A Nazi For Dummies. Her hair is pulled back in the mandatory bun, and she's the poor cinematic cousin to Claude Rains' mommy in Notorious. Which means, of course, that she's got a child—a daughter (Summer Phoenix), who falls hard for Danny. She actually says to him one of the most clichéd of all lines of dialogue: "You're not like the others, are you?" Actually, he is just like all the other white supremacists in the room, for Danny pretty much just likes to drink beer and randomly attack black people.
We don't need this movie to remind us that Nazis are stupid, but there are some funny moments—Danny's brownshirted brethren don't know who Adolf Eichmann is, and their heroes include the Third Reich official whose hand gets scarred by a scalding medallion in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The story pretty much sputters along, with some painful flashbacks to Danny in Hebrew school—of course he's sowing the seeds of his own destruction, but we never do get inside of his head. All this hate—where does it come from? We've got no idea, and it seems like the filmmakers don't, either. Gosling isn't bad, but what he's doing here is frequently the kind of indulgent emoting that sometimes gets mistaken for great acting—it's the kind of stuff that you should leave behind in acting class. (Some of the pull quotes compare Gosling's performance with De Niro's in Taxi Driver, but believe me, that's a big, big stretch.) As you hang with the movie, you realize how sloppily told it is; characters have to be introduced very late in the story, old pals of Danny, only so that things can get all wrapped up before the credits roll. The love story subplot doesn't hold our interest, and even given the singularity of Danny's dilemma, we never come to feel for him, or to know him very well. And even if the political beliefs of your hero aren't as noxious as Danny's, that's an insurmountable problem for whatever kind of story you want to tell.
Rating for Style: C
Rating for Substance: C-
Image Transfer Review: There are many flecks, scratches, and discolorations introduced in the transfer; there are resolution problems, too, as Danny's necktie nearly glows in one scene. Kind of a sloppy bit of work here.
Image Transfer Grade: C
Audio Transfer Review: There seem to have been some on-set audio problems, not corrected either in post-production or in the transfer to DVD, so some of the dialogue sounds muffled. Otherwise, little or no problems with ambient noise or crackling.
Audio Transfer Grade: B-
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring Sex and Lucia, The Last Minute, 1 Giant Leap
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Henry Bean and Christopher Roberts
Extras Review: Writer/director Henry Bean is joined by Christopher Roberts, the film's producer, on a commentary track which is pleasant enough, but not particularly illuminating. Bean talks about how the film was based on a true story, and how it has reconnected him to Judaism; they also discuss Summer Phoenix's nude scenes as artistically necessary, but you get the sense that it's a couple of middle-aged guys coming up with some pathetic justification for getting a young woman to take off her clothes. It's also a reminder of the particular historical moment during which the film was made—after Oklahoma City but before 9/11, the threat of domestic terrorism was a palpable one, but also one that could readily be used for obvious plot points in a movie like this one.
An interview (16m:30s) with Bean is oddly shot with two cameras, and he frequenty seems to be looking into the wrong one. He says that this is "a film about the social problems of being Jewish," but I think he's wrong about that; it's all political debate and opinion reduced to a Crossfire-like shouting match. Also on hand is the Sundance Channel's documentary Anatomy of a Scene (29m:19s), which features interviews with Bean, Roberts, Gosling, the film's editor and production designer; it also shows a few clips of some scenes that Bean shot as an exercise, with another actor, while preparing to make the film, and these are actually the most interesting things here.
Aside from some trailers, you'll also find three weblinks, including one to the film's official site, and another to that of the DVD's distributor.
Extras Grade: C
Final CommentsShock value only goes so far, and while Gosling's performance can sustain some interest, this just isn't a very compelling movie.
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