Using real events as its inspiration, the intriguing crime drama Holy Rollers is a fascinating story about temptation and consequences, centred around another arresting performance from Jesse Eisenberg as an outsider who wants in.
Sam Gold (Eisenberg) is a young Hasid living with his family in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg Orthodox community. His parents want him to pursue rabbinical studies, but he’s more inclined to follow his father into the garment trade where he feels he’ll make more ‘gelt’. Sam is vaguely dissatisfied with his lot and the strict protocols of his faith, but stoically goes along with his parents’ expectations, including the courting rituals for an arranged marriage. When his proposed marriage to a young woman from a family that is better off than his is called off, Sam is primed to succumb to the temptations offered his by next door neighbour, the older and more worldly Yosef (The Hangover‘s Justin Bartha), whose boastful talk of easy money for delivering ‘medicine’ is irresistible to the naïve and disgruntled boy. Sam is thus drawn into the heady glamour and earthly pleasures of Manhattan and Amsterdam, and when he proves adept at the business of international ecstasy trafficking, his double life of spirituality and criminality places him on an inevitable collision course.
Over the past several years, Eisenberg has proven himself an actor of great sensitivity and range, playing broad comedy (Zombieland), poignant coming of age tale (Adventureland), and mesmerising character study (The Social Network) with equal skill and subtlety. He is an actor possessed of an intuitive grasp of how to use the camera, who conveys a great deal with barely perceptible changes in expression and tone of voice. I am always grateful when young actors as gifted as Eisenberg, by either chance or design, don’t get sucked into the gaping maw of mediocrity that many young American performers do; several years of mugging in Disney Channel tween fodder or in formulaic studio films is normally the kiss of death for an actor’s adult career, at least insofar as the artistic or meaningful are concerned.
Sam Gold is believable and sympathetic because he doesn’t follow a pat character arc. He never entirely gives up his faith, even as he sinks deeper and deeper into crime. Like many would be in similar situations (committing acts that one’s family and community couldn’t possibly forgive), he can’t break from his people even though he seemingly can’t live within their moral code. We never get a sense of where Sam thinks his criminal ride is taking him, or where he thinks it will end, which is as it should be.
He is immature and unsophisticated and dazzled by the company he keeps, and proud of the fact that he has managed to find something he is good at, while conveniently sidestepping the violence and ruined lives at the heart of any drug enterprise. Eisenberg’s emotionally truthful performance makes Holy Rollers one of the best low budget American crime stories of the past several years.