AS PLAYED BY the remarkable actor Ryan Gosling, Danny Balint is one of the most unconventional and compelling characters on the screen this year. In The Believer, Danny is a brilliant, charismatic young man who denies his Jewish parentage (he claims Balint is a German name), joins a crew of neo-Nazi thugs and rises to the forefront of a fledgling fascist organization. But he's haunted by the heritage he believes he despises. He makes plans to assassinate a distinguished Jewish philanthropist but turns aside at the crucial moment. He and his friends desecrate a synagogue, but when one of the others drags out the sacred scroll containing the Torah, he protects it, taunting his buddies for not knowing the first thing about the people they say they hate. He goes so far as to take the scroll home, where it sits in his closet like a challenge from the God he's been defying.
Gosling's strategy for expressing the conflict at the heart of this character is to affect a raw, brutish presence that's constantly thrown into question by his intellectual side. He stalks into a brawl with the cockiness of a drunken longshoreman, but when he argues his point of view he sounds like a Talmudic debater, pushing an idea as far as it will go and then provocatively shifting ground. (Gosling was also extraordinary as the rich teen sociopath in the Leopold-and-Loeb-inspired thriller Murder by Numbers.)
Danny's mentor (Theresa Russell), a Manhattan matron with the unfortunate name of Lina Moebius (a literary conceit that the writer-director, Henry Bean, should have resisted), is sufficiently impressed with Danny to make him the featured speaker at a fund-raiser even though she finds his rabid anti-Semitism demode and possibly off-putting for the kind of benefactors she hopes to attract. Facing the crowd, he switches tactics dramatically, imploring his listeners to learn to love the Jew because that's the only way to defeat a race that defines itself by the hatred of others.
You never know exactly what to make of Danny (at least not until the tacked-on resolution). Bean doesn't know either, yet he tries to use Danny for the purposes of social commentary. The Believer is a clumsy, earnest thesis picture with an antihero who's too slippery and full of contradictions to support a thesis. Movies about white-supremacist youths like the character Edward Norton played in American History X tend to be static and obvious because there's only one reasonable way to respond to a violent fanatic who's dripping bile. …