You may recall Insomnia as a Norwegian film made on a modest budget–do I repeat myself?–about the inner life of a morally compromised police detective. The picture enjoyed a small but respectable run in the United States a couple of years ago, thanks to the shambling presence of Stellan Skarsgard in the lead and to the clever use of locations. The director, Erik Skjoldbjaerg, set the action in the north of Norway, during summer, so that this film noir played out almost entirely in daylight.
Now comes a new, American Insomnia, made to the costly standards of a Warner Bros. release. Directed by Christopher Nolan in the wake of his surprise hit Memento, this remake transposes the action to rural Alaska and replaces the not-quite-stellar Skarsgard with Al Pacino. A few paragraphs from now, I will recommend this picture to your attention. First, though, let me talk about a modestly budgeted American movie, The Believer, since it has the distinction of being a film of ideas–in contrast to Insomnia, a film of idea.
I care about The Believer, first of all, because its writer-director, Henry Bean, has noticed a truth that escapes most American filmmakers: People think about things. For most of us, of course, at most times, our notions of the world amount to a discontinuous, self-contradicting jumble; but it’s a jumble on which we may stake our lives. That’s why the disorderliness can be dramatic in itself–provided, as Bean knows, that the ideas trouble the mind of a compelling enough character.
So here is young Danny Balint, played unforgettably in The Believer by the whiplike Ryan Gosling. Think of him as Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, only leaner, more delicate in features and infinitely more articulate. Danny hunches and glowers and struts and slinks through the streets of New York City, his close-cropped head buzzing with mutually incompatible versions of Jewish identity, his brain bursting with arguments about God and against God. Danny wishes with all his heart to be someone other than a young man of ideas–but it’s his fate to be cerebral, which is what makes him so moving and so horrible. He is a yeshiva-educated Jew who wants to live in the blood, as a Nazi activist.
Now, I’ve hesitated to write about The Believer, in part because I happen to know Henry Bean and in part because I was never sure when the picture would get into theaters. The Believer won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance festival in 2001 but then failed to find a theatrical distributor. (According to The Independent magazine, the phones stopped ringing after a preview audience at the Simon Wiesenthal Center felt The Believer might be bad for the Jews.) The filmmakers decided to go straight to cable and signed a deal with Showtime, which announced a television premiere in late September 2001–not a propitious air date, as it turned out, for a movie about an intense guy in New York City who plans to blow things up. But since Showtime has gotten around to presenting The Believer (in March of this year), I want to say a few words about the picture, now that audiences may at last face Danny in the public space of a movie theater.