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Danny Balint may be the worst neo-Nazi skinhead imaginable. He's focused, he's malevolent, he's violent and, worst of all, he knows more about Judaism than most Jews. Because he is one. And so when he's not blind-siding a Jewish kid coming off the subway and stomping him into the pavement, he's deconstructing the Torah for friends and enemies alike and spitting it right back in their faces.

The Believer, writer Henry Bean's debut as a director, is fascinating in its combination of emotional, spiritual and intellectual complexity. The film, produced by New Orleans resident Susan Hoffman, won top honors at this year's Sundance Film Festival and screens this weekend at the New Orleans Film Festival. It may well be the most provocative film of the year.

Bean (who will attend this screening) paints his fact-based character as a man utterly at war with himself, his beliefs, his instincts, his heart -- you name it. For Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling) has shunned the religion that he has studied top to bottom, and turned on its people. Though he is resolute in his hatred of all the right things a good skinhead is supposed to hate, he still feels the constant pull of his heritage. In a sense, he doesn't quite know who to hate, because his own self-loathing keeps getting in the way. When a reporter doing a feature on him provides evidence that he is in fact a Jew, Danny pulls a gun on him and seethes, "If you print that story ... I'm going to kill myself."

Bean's intelligent script goes way deep in its exploration into Judaism not just as a religion but also as a culture. And in Gosling, Bean has found a potentially major young star. Gosling's steely gaze, which subtly succumbs to welling eyes as he ponders his choices, comes so naturally you'd think he'd gone through the same crisis of faith himself.

His performance has been understandably compared to Edward Norton's Oscar-nominated turn as a self-doubting skinhead in 1998's American History X, but Gosling's performance has even more layers, particular because he is robbed of the chance for redemption that makes Norton's character so sympathetic. Yet his Danny is sympathetic nonetheless, externalizing his inner struggle to the bitter end.

click to enlarge Danny (Ryan Gosling) explains his conflicting views to Carla (Summer Phoenix) in Henry Bean's The Believer.
  • Danny (Ryan Gosling) explains his conflicting views to Carla (Summer Phoenix) in Henry Bean's The Believer.
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