The Believers

Mr. Reindeer

White Lodge
Apr 13, 2022
Based on the novel The Religion by “Nicholas Conde” (a pseudonym for the writing team of Robert Rosenblum and Robert Nathan, the latter of whom later became a prominent Law & Order writer). Fresh off of Hill Street Blues and looking to break into features, Frost got the gig after sending director John Schlesinger a script he’d written called True Romance, which was (loosely) based on a real Minnesota murder case: June Mikulanec was found not guilty by reason of insanity of stabbing the wife of a man she delusionally believed was in love with her ninety-seven times. That script was eventually made many years later, in 2000, as a Lifetime movie called The Deadly Look of Love (some young upstart screenwriter in the early ’90s had used the True Romance title already), and starring Jordan Ladd, scream queen and star of Lynch’s Darkened Room (as well as one of the Valley Girls in INLAND EMPIRE). (Spoiler alert: The Deadly Look of Love, like most Lifetime movies, is not very good. But it is available to watch on Freevee, for the curious.)

The Believers begins in Minneapolis, where Frost spent a good portion of his youth (although the Minneapolis scenes were actually shot in Toronto, as were all of the interior scenes throughout the film). The opening scene is, to me, a complete misfire that really cues the viewer up for completely the wrong type of movie. I don’t know if it’s Frost’s script, Schlesinger’s direction, the performances, or all of the above (the latter is probably the most likely option), but the whole sequence plays out as completely cornball and silly. It starts off with the milkman making a delivery (were milkmen still a thing anywhere in the U.S. in 1987?), and then in rapid succession we get several absolutely groan-worthy dialogue exchanges between Martin Sheen’s Cal Jamison and his wife and son, trying to set them up as an absolutely adorable family. Then, Cal spills the newly-delivered milk, the coffee machine short-circuits, and, trying to turn the coffee machine off while standing barefoot in a massive pool of milk (I’m sorry, but Darwinism is a thing and I don’t feel at all bad about someone this dumb dying), Cal’s wife electrocutes herself. What follows is an absurd comedic sequence—and here I have to put the lion’s share of the blame on Schlesinger—where the wife (Canadian actor Janet Laine-Green) convulses in almost Pythonesque fashion, with periodic cuts to Sheen repeatedly yelling “Oh Jesus!” in what would have been a meme-ready performance if memes had existed in 1987. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be feeling during this sequence, but given that the remainder of the film plays the loss of the mom and the trauma of both Cal and the son very straight and sincere (and effectively so), I don’t think I was meant to find the scene hysterically funny. Whoops. Bad start. The good news is, it gets better almost instantly.

There’s a rather nutty jump cut to a ritual being performed in Africa (Sudan, we’ll learn later), and the opening credits roll. The ritual (seemingly a sacrifice of some kind, with a white couple and their kid involved) keeps the frantic momentum of the teaser going, but the film immediately takes on a darker and more sinister tone. And once we rejoin Cal and his son, having moved to NYC, the viewer hopefully recalibrates pretty quickly to the film they’re actually watching.

I haven’t read the book, but I read a few of the synopses/reviews online, and one innovation Frost brought to the table is to change Cal’s profession. In the book, he’s an anthropologist; in the movie, his deceased wife was the anthropologist. Cal is instead a police therapist—the kind that treats officers with trauma—which is a really interesting profession you don’t see depicted as a leading protagonist very often. It provides a great way for Cal to become increasingly involved in the action in a natural, believable way, and is a great decision by Frost. Sheen plays the role with his characteristic everyman charm, and is totally believable as a widower carrying the burden of his loss, while gradually warming to the idea of starting anew with his pretty landlady Jessica (Helen Shaver) and trying—sometimes inexpertly—to cope with his son’s resistance to his mother being replaced. Sheen and Shaver, and for that matter child actor Harley Cross as son Chris, all bring real humanity to the situation, and the scenes that deal with the purely character-based stuff are surprisingly among the most effective in the movie. One of the best and most memorable sequences involves Jessica trying to buy Chris a toy on his birthday, and Chris angrily storming off into traffic, nearly getting run over, leading an infuriated Cal to grab and spank the kid, then chase him home and tearfully apologize.

Despite the movie largely shooting in Toronto, the production maximizes its time in NYC, getting great value out of scenes set in Central Park, on the pier/harbor, and some great local color/extras in the background of the street scenes that truly capture the 1980s era that I remember well. In particular, the discovery of the first murder victim occurs at a great location, a derelict movie theater: the RKO Bushwick at 1396 Broadway in Brooklyn. Opened in 1911 as a truly stunning Vaudeville theater, it was transformed into a movie theater in 1930, and closed in 1969, whereupon it lay abandoned for decades. Sadly, in 2004, the building was substantially altered and transformed into the Brooklyn High School for Law and Technology. The sadly neglected original theater is used to great effect by Schlesinger, especially when he portrays a standoff going on behind the screen, that can be seen only in larger-than-life silhouette from the viewing area (which is scattered with uprooted seats).

The film deals with santería, as well as its darker counterpart, brujería. A series of murders is being carried out by a strange recently-arrived African named Palo (Malick Bowens), whose eyes turn a milky color when he engages in taking control of others’ minds, or placing curses on them. We’ll eventually learn of his sinister connection to the ritual seen in the main titles, and to Cal and his son. This is where Frost is again smart in changing Cal’s profession. Many of the complaints I read about the book were from reviewers complaining that, for an anthropologist, the book’s Cal comes across as shockingly ignorant and bigoted. In the film, this is far more understandable, since he has no reason to be aware of the distinctions between the benign practice of santería and its darker counterparts. In one of the more effective through-lines in the film—and again, this works because it is character-based—Cal becomes increasingly frustrated with his Latina housekeeper, who is trying to use santería to protect Cal’s son. Eventually, Cal angrily and almost violently fires her and drives her out of the house. It’s a powerful scene because his fear is understandable due to the weird supernatural shit he’s been seeing due to his exposure to the police investigation, and the outburst against this poor innocent well-meaning woman is coming from a place of his fear for his son.

At first blush, one could view The Believers as a typical example of “otherism”: portraying a weird, unfamiliar culture as inherently terrifying and demonic, a fairly common horror trope. And there is certainly that danger. The movie skates on the edge of that, and probably crosses over a few times (at the very least, I’m very confident that many of the depictions of santería and its rituals are not strictly culturally authentic, just based on my very cursory online reading). But the movie subverts expectations midway through, and in true Frost fashion, reveals that—once again—we’re dealing here with issues of class, as well as cultural appropriation. It’s the rich white people, the cultural elite of NY, who have co-opted this culture of brujería, recognizing the unlimited power it can bring them if they play ball with the evil gods. I think that, when The Believers was discussed on dugpa occasionally, the scene that was most mentioned was the African Palo character, milky-eyed, dancing in an entranced state at a posh NY gala surrounded by old rich white people. It’s a fun, striking, creepy scene, and probably the best single visual encapsulation of what the film is trying (not always successfully) to say/do/be.

The film also makes it a point to portray Christianity as equally as weird/crazy/irrational/violent as santería. The crucifix originally worn by Cal’s deceased wife is a repeating prop in the film. The son insists at one point on going to a church to light a memorial candle for the mom, and, in an effective sequence, Cal (who has abandoned Catholicism following his wife’s death) suddenly seems to take in how strange and foreign all the church rituals must seem to an outsider. Then, the son (prominently clad in a Yankees jacket—I can’t believe this was a coincidence, as sports are basically another religion in America) approaches the altar and looks visibly disturbed by the graphically bloody depiction of Jesus in front of him. I also noticed on this viewing that in many scenes, televisions are conspicuously on in the background. Although I couldn’t always make out what was playing on them, in a couple of instances, they were clearly displaying either Christian church services or televangelists, which feels like a very deliberate choice on Schlesinger’s and/or Frost’s part, to show the crass commercialization of the supposedly sacred in our culture.

Although there’s a lot of baggage to unpack in this film, I’ve been remiss in getting this far along without mentioning the two great supporting performances. Robert Loggia plays NYPD Lieutenant Sean McTaggert, an alcoholic with a constant ten-o’clock shadow, a tough guy with a sensitive soul who’s pushed himself too far and seen too much. It’s the perfect fit for Loggia, who just a year earlier had missed out on being in a Lynch film after his disastrous audition for the role of Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, but here Lynch’s future partner gives Loggia a consolation prize. The Believers overall is a good, not great, film; but I think Loggia’s performance as McTaggert may be among his career greatest, a real underrated gem.

Not quite on the same level, but a very young Jimmy Smits plays the role of Detective Tom Lopez, a santería-practicing cop who falls into the web of the killer and succumbs to madness and/or being cursed (living snakes are inexplicably found inside his body in the autopsy after he stabs himself to death in a diner). Smits at this point was best known for the 1986 Billy Crystal-starring action-comedy Running Scared (his feature debut) and for his series regular role as Victor Sifuentes on L.A. Law (also premiering in 1986). One has to wonder whether L.A. Law creator (and recently-fired Hill Street Blues creator/show runner) Steve Bochco had some role in getting Smits cast in Frost’s new project (which filmed over the summer before Law began airing). In any event, it’s a hell of a performance. From first scene to last, Smits skates the edge of mania—not really the kind of performance he would come to be known for—but he always hits exactly the right tone, believable but not overly broad.

There is one absolutely ridiculous musical cue, when a dude is walking down the street with a boombox blaring a hip-hop song that begins, “I’m a hardcore rapper from my head to my toes.” I find myself straining with my ear to the speaker trying to discern the lyrics under the ambient noise of the scene because it’s so stupid and silly. Unfortunately, the song is not identified in the end credits, so it may go forever unknown and unheard in full.

I’m fairly certain that Mark Frost has a cameo in the background, in the police locker room as Sheen and Loggia are discussing the autopsy report for the rich guy’s kid. Mark can be seen chewing like a cow (presumably gum or chewing tobacco?), very decisively putting on his jacket, and looking repeatedly over at the camera. Once you notice him, it’s like the most distracting performance by a background extra ever.

One effective horror scene is when love interest Jessica’s increasingly bloated cheek sore (the result of a curse placed by Palo) suddenly opens up, releasing several bugs that crawl up her face.

The climax of the movie takes place in a warehouse, presumably because it was a 1980s thriller and those are just supposed to end in giant shootouts that take place in warehouses for some reason. I haven’t mentioned Richard Masur (the dog guy from The Thing), but he has a good turn as Cal’s best friend Marty, a lawyer. I have to say, it was refreshing to see a lawyer character depicted as not just a decent guy, but also a wacky goofball who’s obsessed with magic tricks. There are way more wacky goofball lawyers than people think. Anyway, Marty gets his hero moment, Cal defeats the villains, and our heroes retire to the countryside to live happily ever after. Until, in a Twilight Zone-style twist ending, things may not be as happy as we’d hoped…
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