Probing the roots of intolerance

If it weren't based on an actual case history, "The Believer" might seem like some indie filmmaker's idea of an attention-grabbing shocker.

What could push more emotional buttons than the violent tale of a young Jewish man who's become a neo-Nazi skinhead, preaching a brand of anti-Semitism so outrageous that even his fascist friends are surprised?

It is based on real events, though, and that grim reality injects extra power into Henry Bean's stunningly smart, genuinely disturbing film.

Ingeniously played by Ryan Gosling, the main character is Danny Balint, a 20-something Jew with a deadly hatred of Jewish life, faith, and history.

His ambition is to murder an influential Jew in a headline-worthy assassination. His friends range from rage-filled local thugs to a pair of intellectually sophisticated neofascists.

These two think the time is right for a rebirth of ultraright politics in America, and they want Danny as a recruiter and spokesman – if only he'd tone down his Jew-hating rhetoric, which even their vicious philosophy finds counterproductive.

"The Believer" gains much of its mind-jolting edge from Danny's passionate arguments for his outrageous ideas.

He believes Judaism is based on abstraction, and therefore spawns a self-defeating brand of impotence and victimhood that curses everyone who falls under its spell – beginning with Abraham, in his view.

Bean's screenplay traces the evolution of Danny's opinions, beginning with precocious rants he delivers as a schoolboy.

"The Believer" is about the most dangerous foe a tolerant society can have – a person who's as intelligent as he is misguided – and about the difficulty of stopping such an individual before irreparable damage is done, let alone fathoming his personality or changing his malevolent mind.

It hits a few false notes when it overplays the violence committed by Danny's skinhead sidekicks, but most of the movie is chillingly understated, if that's the right term for such a heart-stopping narrative.

William Butler Yeats's words in "The Second Coming" are utterly appropriate in the context of this fact-inspired tale: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

• Not rated; contains violence and sex.

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