Set in New York City, this story–directed by Henry Bean–revolves around the moral, spiritual, and identity confusion of Daniel (Ryan Gosling), a Jewish youth who struggles with conflicts between his public beliefs and cultural heritage. Daniel, at least on the public front, rejects his Jewish heritage and joins a Neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic skinhead group where he voices some volatile beliefs against Jews and embarks on plans of rather serious physical violence against them. Examining themes of self-loathing, family, loyalty, religion, and politics, the film echoes a true story from the 60s where a man arrested at a KKK rally was revealed to be a Jew in a New York Times article. He subsequently committed suicide, as he’d told the reporter he would if his secret was revealed.
The content of this film is such that it is difficult, for me at least, to view it in a completely objective light and concentrate on direction, casting, costume, lighting, or any of the physical characteristics of the film, without being compelled by the story unfolding in front of me and what it is telling me. This film raises so many questions and makes so many jarring points, that one could write a novel on what is kindled by it. How to compact one’s thoughts on something so intense and impactful? What direction could one go and not feel as if something is being left out? I’m not even going to try. What I am going to do, is try to answer what is probably the biggest question raised by this film: how and why did it come to pass that a Jew could so violently reject his own culture?
Daniel is a walking paradox. He both loves and hates his heritage and himself. These contradictions, this intense loathing, leads to the perverse result of a Neo-Nazi who is also a Jew. Now a young man, Daniel engages in actions against the culture of his roots that are violent, vile, and perhaps utterly confusing to someone who wonders how a Jew could not merely reject their heritage, but actively take part in acts of violence against that heritage by joining a group so negatively set against the Jews. Via flashbacks to the Yeshivah (a school where young Jewish males are taught, and discuss, Talmud and other Jewish texts – one could, to an extent, compare it to a Bible college or Sunday school), Daniel’s budding rejection of his culture begins to come to light.
As Daniel begins to think and question critically, he expresses opinions, refutations, and questions that are diametrically opposed to the usual teachings of his faith. In the Yeshivah he challenges the scholar leading the class and his views are rejected to such a degree that the man asks that Daniel be removed. Daniel sees that that there is no place for him there, no place in his religion for someone who questions his faith, and since Jewish culture and religion are so closely tied together, that separation is much more than just a rejection of religious rules or dogma. His culture, as a whole, is rejecting him as an individual. To be so severely punished at such a tender, life turning-point, might be enough to drive anyone into the state of opposition in which Daniel later finds himself.
It is necessary for anyone to have a safe place from which to examine oneself, and Daniel now finds himself without one as his home life appears less than stable or supportive. He feels no ties to his family, feels rejected by his faith, and it appears the only groups which do accept him and whatever he espouses are those who are rigidly opposed to the culture from which Daniel comes. Feeling rejected by his culture, he begins to reject his culture.
That rejection, however, is not wholesale. If not able to love his faith and culture openly, he shows respect for them privately. He continues to show respect for Torah scrolls, even as his skinhead companions rip them and spit on them; when he goes with them to assassinate a Jewish businessman, he wears the tallith (the cloth with the Star of David on it that some Jewish males wear under their clothing), and he rebukes his girlfriend for being nude in front of the Torah scroll he has in his bedroom.
There is a portion of the film where Daniel and his companions are required to submit to sensitivity training. They must listen to survivors of WWII death camps tell their stories. One gentleman describes how he and his family were found hiding in some hay by German soldiers. The man’s child was crying, so as any father would, he clung to it while the soldier tried to take the child away. The soldier skewered the child through the chest on a pike, lifted it into the air, and waved it around such that the child’s blood fell on the father’s face. Daniel’s identity confusion is later highlighted via several dreams where he sees himself in various roles in the scenario of this man’s story; at first as the soldier killing the child, and last as the man who tells the story, watching his child killed in front of him.
Daniel starts out as an inflictor of harm, but as the movie–and these dreams–continue, he is, at the last, a Jew. He sacrifices himself to save his fellows, and by doing so he succeeds in doing what he’d planned to do throughout the film–kill a Jew. Despite the remaining confusion after his death, he dies as a Jew. Beginning with rejection, he ends with realisation and acceptance.