Daniel Balint is a former Jewish yeshiva student, brilliant but troubled, who is now a fanatically violent Neo-Nazi in New York in his early twenties. As a child, he often challenged his teachers with unorthodox interpretations of scripture. He once argued that the Binding of Isaac was not about Abraham's faith but God's power: that God did not want Abraham to accomplish a particular task but instead asks unquestioning obedience, which Abraham refuses to give. He concluded that God is a bully.
Daniel finds a meeting of fascists run by Curtis Zampf and Lina Moebius, where he also makes a connection with Lina's daughter Carla. Daniel advocates killing Jews, and a banker named Manzetti in particular, but Curtis and Lina oppose harming Jews on practical if not moral grounds. Impressed with Daniel's intelligence, Lina invites him to their camp retreat in the country. Afterward, Daniel and his fellow Neo-Nazi friends pick a fight with two African-American men, get arrested, and are bailed out of jail by Carla. He spends the night with her but returns to the home of his ailing father. Daniel searches his Hebrew school notebooks and finds a semiautomatic pistol. He is harangued by his sister Linda for his Nazi beliefs, but she also urges him to stay and have Shabbat dinner with their father. The men watch television, which is forbidden, leading them to commiserate on the incomprehensibility of Jewish law.
Guy Danielsen, a journalist writing an article on hate groups in the wake of the Oklahoma City Bombing, meets Daniel for an interview. He listens to Daniel's antisemitic rant, then reveals that he had been in contact with Daniel's old rabbi Stanley Nadelman and knows that Daniel is Jewish. Daniel pulls out his pistol and threatens to commit suicide if Guy publishes the truth.
Daniel goes to Lina's fascist camp retreat, where he meets Drake, a skilled marksman, along with an explosives expert. Six of the retreat participants, including Daniel, go to a Jewish deli, where they mock the other patrons and torment the owner about Jewish dietary laws until a fight breaks out. After this fight, Daniel and his friends are required by a court to take sensitivity training, where they listen to the experiences of Holocaust survivors. One talks about how his infant son was murdered by a Nazi. Daniel is enraged that the man did nothing to save his son, but all the survivors assert that Daniel would also have done nothing to avoid being killed, and he walks out in anger.
The story will haunt him, and he imagines himself as both the Nazi and the Jew. Later that night, Daniel and the other Neo-Nazis break into a synagogue, vandalize it, and plant a bomb under the pulpit. They also tear, trample, and spit on a Torah scroll, though Daniel protests. After they leave, Daniel takes the scroll and a tallit with him. The next morning, the Neo-Nazis hear on the news that the bomb failed to go off because the timer froze at thirteen minutes, which the rabbi explains is a mystical number in Judaism. He says that he believes this means that God protected the synagogue. Back in his cabin, Daniel cleans and repairs the scroll, envisioning himself as the Nazi soldier in the Holocaust survivor's story. He puts on the tallit under his shirt and performs a combination of the Nazi salute and a gesture used in Jewish prayers.
Drake soon approaches him with a plan to kill Manzetti, so the two ambush him outside a temple, where Daniel fires but misses. Drake sees the tallit under Daniel's shirt and realizes that he is a Jew, so Daniel shoots him and escapes. He continues to meet with Lina and Curtis, who want to start an above-ground movement to bring fascism into the political mainstream, inviting Jews, blacks, and liberals. Daniel reluctantly agrees to help them raise funds. At the meetings that follow Daniel first charms, then enrages, their potential donors with his intellectual games, leading to his eventual expulsion. When the group hears that Manzetti was killed, Lina suspects Daniel, since he proposed the assassination, but Drake is the real killer.
In the meantime, Carla comforts Daniel and the two sleep together at his home. When she sees the stolen Torah, she asks Daniel to teach her Hebrew, ostensibly for intellectual reasons. They also begin to practice Jewish rituals. He soon runs into an old friend and his fiancée, Stuart and Miriam, who invite him to a Rosh Hashanah service, assuming that he is an anti-racist skinhead. When Daniel arrives, another old friend calls him out as a racist skinhead. As he is leaving, Miriam, who works for the District Attorney, tells him that half of the people in Lina Moebius' meetings are informants for the D.A. Later she asks Daniel to record conversations at a meeting so she can help him with possible charges stemming from the Manzetti killing. He refuses because as Miriam confesses she doesn't care about the truth, she only cares about Daniel.
As Yom Kippur approaches, Daniel calls Miriam and insists on taking Stuart's place reading the Torah at the bimah on Yom Kippur. He and his friends plant a new bomb under the temple's pulpit even though they find it reinforced, limiting the explosion. When Daniel takes the pulpit the next day, he is shocked to see Carla in the congregation. He again imagines himself in the story the Holocaust survivor told him, this time as both the Nazi and the Jew. With five minutes to go, Daniel stops and tells to everyone to get out because there is a bomb, but refuses to leave himself.
Daniel is shown in a mystical vision, ascending the stairs in the Jewish school he left as a child. His old teacher approaches, hoping to talk about the Binding of Isaac, and suggests that Isaac died on the mountain and was reborn in the next world. But Daniel ignores him and keeps going, up, and up, infinitely, as his teacher urges him to stop, calling out, "There's nothing up there."Ryan Gosling as Daniel "Danny" Balint
Jacob Green as young Danny
Billy Zane as Curtis Zampf
Theresa Russell as Lina Moebius
Summer Phoenix as Carla Moebius
Ronald Guttman as Mr. Balint
Glenn Fitzgerald as Drake
Garret Dillahunt as Billings
Heather Goldenhersh as Linda
A. D. Miles as Guy Danielsen
Tommy Nohilly as Whit
Henry Bean as Ilio Manzetti
Joshua Harto as Kyle
Chuck Ardezzone as Chuck
Elizabeth Reaser as Miriam
Dean Strober as Stuart
Frank Winters as young Stuart
Judah Lazarus as Avi
James G. McCaffrey as young Avi
Sascha Knopf as Cindy Pomerantz
Tovah Feldshuh as Woman in Shul
Roberto Gari as Ancient Jew
Eileen B. Weiss as Woman at Yom Kippur
The Believer received an 82% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 90 reviews; the average rating is 7.3 out of 10. The consensus states: "Gosling commands the screen with a raw, electrifying performance." The film also has a score of 75 on Metacritic based on 28 reviews.
Jamie Russell of BBC Films said that it was "awe-inspiring ... a late contender for one of the best films of the year—an intellectually breathtaking, profoundly moving film." Charlotte O'Sullivan of The Independent said, "It's naturally thrilling...The Believer is astonishing." Time Out said, "the film is driven by Gosling's revelatory performance ... arresting, prickly, vaguely funny, even—'difficult' in the best sense."
Todd McCarthy for Variety said, "Bean deals with the core elements of this odd, and oddly compelling, situation with admirable frankness and intelligence, but flounders around the edges. The tenets of Zampf and Moebius' political movement receive such scant attention that the scenes devoted to it are borderline ludicrous, and the masochistic impulses that seem to draw Carla to Danny—"Hurt me!," she begs at the start of their first sexual encounter, and he willingly obliges—are rote and undeveloped."
Julie Salamon for The New York Times said, "This willfully provocative film portrait (...) offers lots of raging, vulgarity and shock but little insight into the character's psychopathology. (...) The movie's most telling moment comes when Danny confronts Holocaust survivors about why they allowed themselves to be brutalized. One of them, an old man, responds by asking, And what shall we learn from you, Daniel ? It's a good question, never answered.
David Germain for The Washington Post said, "Even as he commits hate crimes and becomes an anti-Jewish rabble-rouser, the youth is torn between contempt for Jewish passivity during the Holocaust and reverence for the traditions of Judaism."
Peter Travers for Rolling Stone said, "This is a touchy topic, notably for Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who felt the film didn't work and has publicly said so. Without full-throttle support from the Jewish community, The Believer is on the ropes. Bean, a Conservative Jew from Philadelphia, is a screenwriter with a commercial track record, from Internal Affairs to Enemy of the State. (...) In Gosling, a Canadian actor who started at twelve as a TV Mouseketeer alongside Britney Spears before moving on to film (Remember the Titans), Bean has found the perfect actor. Gosling gives a great, dare-anything performance that will be talked of for ages.