They say everyone wants to be Ryan Gosling – he’s become the ideal of thousands of internet denizens who proclaim the actor is “literally me” in each role. But in the case of The Believer, a 2001 drama that delves into the depths of ideological extremism, maybe you’d think twice about wanting to step into Gosling’s shoes.
The story of The Believer circles around Danny Balint, portrayed by none other than Ken himself, Ryan Gosling. Danny is a young Jewish man who, after delving into some twisted interpretations of the scripture, becomes convinced that the Jews aren’t powerful enough. This conviction pushes him into a downward spiral of hatred for himself, his culture, and everything else he deems “weak.” Long story short, he becomes a Jewish neo-Nazi.
Playing a character like Danny Balint couldn’t have been easy, but Ryan Gosling nails it. He shows us Danny’s inner conflict in this raw, intense way that draws you in even when it freaks you out. Gosling somehow gets across how torn Danny is between his Jewish heritage and buying into neo-Nazi discourse.
You can see the gears turning as Danny tries to justify his twisted logic. It’s chilling but also kind of fascinating, thanks, in great part, to Gosling’s acting chops. Much like Edward Norton in American History X, Danny’s character shows us how easy it is for any person to buy into an ideology of hatred based on misinterpretation and misplaced anger.
Perhaps one of the best parts about The Believer is how humane and sincere its narrative feels. At no point during the film do you feel like there’s any sort of justification or even a hint of an excuse for Danny’s actions, but that doesn’t mean that he isn’t a sympathetic character at all. The ending serves as a powerful conclusion to Danny’s character arc, even if that still might not be enough to redeem its character.
Now, when we think of Ryan Gosling, our minds usually go to this dreamy actor who occasionally delves into some unexpectedly deep dramas. More La La Land and less Drive have been Gosling’s usual career path – but that entire tactic seems absent when it comes to The Believer.
The Believer was Gosling’s third feature film – he had still to prove his reputation as the beloved – if brooding – actor he’s today. Starring in such a controversial drama as The Believer so early in one’s career might be seen as a surefire way to Typecast Town – but not for Gosling.
This is not the usual “feelgood” drama where goodness wins at the end, and Danny enjoys a long life with his beloved as a changed man. The Believer doesn’t shy away from showing how hate, and the destruction it breeds, usually lead people to a place from which there’s no return.
Despite enjoying some positive buzz from critics, the limited mass appeal of The Believer and its controversial subject have turned it into one of Gosling’s most overlooked films. If you’re the type of fan who loves Gosling in everything he is in, or if he’s “literally you” whenever he’s brooding or sulking in Blade Runner 2049, then definitely consider giving The Believer a watch.