Directed by Henry Bean, starring Ryan Gosling, Summer Phoenix, Theresa Russell and Billy Zane.

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, Henry Bean's debut feature looks at race and identity through the twin spectres of male rage and confusion. After weightlifting in his room, we see Danny Balint (Gosling) on a subway train, harassing a young Jewish student and then viciously beating him when he tries to walk away. But despite the shaved head, swastika T-shirt and army boots, Danny is tortured by a secret: he himself is Jewish.

Having turned his back on both family and faith, Danny now has a dead-end job and Nazi friends - eager to separate himself from himself. The fact that he's brighter than all of them put together comes to the attention of Lina Moebius (Russell) and Curtis Zampf (Zane), loft apartment fascists who only want to get their hands dirty counting the money from well-heeled backers. They see Danny as a new recruit ("we need intellectuals, we have enough thugs") but he considers their coffee table plans as too far removed from his reality and concocts plans to assassinate a famous banker and blow up a synagogue.

While 'The Believer' will draw references to both 'Romper Stomper' and 'American History X', it is far weightier, with Gosling's character more charismatic and ugly than either Russell Crowe or Edward Norton's in those films. It is contradictions like this which form the basis of Bean's film and harks back to the Torah, where everything has its own opposite.

Thus we see Danny as a young Yeshiva student, arguing back with his teacher - annoyed by what he's taught but still wanting to learn it. Later, as Danny and his cohorts break into a synagogue, he becomes so terrified by their lack of respect that he takes away the items they vandalise so that he can repair the damage. Bean shows us that Danny's behaviour and polarity is driven by what he considers to be a reluctance on the part of Jewish people to fight back. When he attacks the student he screams at him to throw a punch and meeting a Holocaust survivor as part of his parole, he asks him why they didn't attack the German soldier who killed his infant son.

Gosling gives a hypnotic performance as the ball of reason and rage haunted by his heritage and trying desperately to escape. The scenes he shares with Phoenix (playing Russell's daughter and attraction – not love - interest) are brilliantly executed. As she becomes more fascinated by Judaism, she pulls Danny further into his real identity, a catalyst in a chain of events leading to a finale which, of course, has elements of both tragedy and redemption.

It may feel towards the closing stages that Bean is handling the action too fast and speeding up Danny's destiny unnecessarily, but Gosling brilliantly carries the plot. And while people will criticise Bean for answering few of the questions he raises, that would be far too simplistic an outcome for what he has accomplished in the previous 90 minutes.

'The Believer' is an uncomfortable experience, but one as brave and challenging as you could possibly expect these days from American cinema.

Harry Guerin