Ryan Gosling may be, far and away, the most deserving candidate in this year's Best Actor race for his slow-burning, swaggering take on the tired junkie character in Half Nelson, but for me, his career-best work "arrived" more than five years ago. It is in Henry Bean's highly controversial The Believer, a film loosely based on the life of Dan Burros, that features Gosling at his most unpredictable and volatile as an artist. For the purposes of the film, Burros is renamed Daniel Balint, but the puzzling details largely remain the same. In the early 60s, Burros - once a promising and devout student of Orthodox Judaism - unexpectedly turned in his outlook to align with the white-supremest American Nazi Party. He was initially successful in keeping his religious and ethnic background a secret from his comrades, but once a New York Times reporter exposed the truth in an article, Burros ended his life shortly thereafter. Bean's film attempts to piece together the stages of the young man's journey, and understand the degree of control that Balint/Burros must have possessed in order to selectively display and veil these parts of himself to others. It is a terrifying, deeply sad character study, and Bean does an able job in giving this disturbed and confused soul the right degree of sympathy (and an equal weight of aversion.) And his greatest asset is undoubtedly Gosling - the actor's transformation is nothing short of unbelievable. It is very difficult to make the connection between this violent, unstable aggressor and the affable dork Gosling portrayed on the cheesy tween series "Breaker High", or even the swoon-worthy Noah in The Notebook, the role he is best known (and loved) for. Even Half Nelson's Dan Dunne, a selfish and irresponsible teacher, is a saint in comparison.
In Gosling's hands, Daniel is one of the most unhinged, terrifying figures I've ever encountered in my years of worshiping the cinema. There is something unnerving about the way he looks ruefully out at the world; one gets the sense that if provoked, that cold unfeeling exterior will quickly give way to the raging beast within. And it does: Bean and Gosling hide nothing when the character savagely attacks with his words or fists, subjecting us to the ugliness of this man's hatred. Despite the fact that this disgust is clearly directed at himself and the inescapable reality of his core being, the cruelty is mostly visited upon the outside world and its people. He is a walking and living terror, the kind of brute you would never want to cross paths with, not even in broad daylight in a busy part of town. Consider the scene in the restaurant when the reporter casually brings up Daniel's Jewish background - the look Gosling responds with is at once so furious, helpless and self-righteous that you have expect him to murder the man in a panic. You can note both the defeat of having been "found out", and the denial of this charge that follows. "Do I look Jewish to you?", he spits indignantly; "Look at this!", he points to his own shaved head and clothes, as if they are proof enough to validate his claims. It is the defining moment when the monster is faced with his own hypocrisy and the inescapable contradiction of his values.
See the trailer here.