While Holy Rollers features a strong performance from Eisenberg, the film itself feels scattered and amateur.
Holy Rollers is based on actual events that happened in the late ’90s in New York when drug trafficking in the United States was at its peak. The film centers around Sam Gold (Jesse Eisenberg), a young Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn who has been raised to live every moment by the word of the Jewish faith. His father (Mendel Gold) has plans for him to become a rabbi and has begun arrangements for Sam’s marriage. While he concedes to his father’s wishes and adheres to the lifestyle requirements of his religion, Sam is clearly less than enthusiastic about his life’s path.
Through one of his closest friends, Sam becomes associates with Yosef (Justin Barth) who invites Sam to transport “medicine” from Amsterdam back to the United States. Though Sam is reluctant to take part in what seems too easy to be legal, Yosef assuages his fears by telling Sam he will be doing a mitzvah for his community; this is all Sam needs to hear to reconcile his guilt with his actions. What Sam soon discovers is that the medicine is actually pills and the pills are actually ecstasy. Sam is horrified by what he has done, but the weight of a wad of cash in his pocket makes his disgust fade very quickly.
Watching Holy Rollers, I couldn’t help but think of the 2001 film The Believer starring Ryan Gosling. Both films follow young Jewish men who are struggling with their faith and identity. What is fascinating, when comparing the two films, is how the characters revolt against their religion and upbringing in relation to the style of Judaism they practice(d).
While Sam in Holy Rollers rebels against his ultra-Orthodox lifestyle and its many restrictions, Danny Balint, played by Gosling in The Believer, rejects his identity altogether due to a deep-seeded mistrust of Jewish teachings and beliefs. How dissimilar are the journeys of these two men? Both feel weighed down by the expectations of their faith. Both discover that by turning their backs on the Judaism that they feel a sense of relief or freedom (even if it is temporary, as it turns out to be in both cases).
In the late ’90s, more than one-million ecstasy pills were smuggled into the U.S. using Hasidic Jews as mules with many of the couriers being clueless as to what they were actually doing. Holy Rollers fails to highlight this far more interesting and engaging aspect of the events. How many of those people, most of whom were probably from low-income families, would just be happy to for once have a few extra dollars in their pocket?
A far more effective storyteller would have focused on how long a person can ignore or deny what is going on before their morals tells them to stop. Sam makes a clear, sober decision: even though it is illegal and immoral, he is going to smuggle drugs into the country. There is no conflict for the character because he makes his decision knowing the consequences of his actions. But what if Sam wasn’t positive what was going on? He would have more inner turmoil and be much more distraught. He would have to face himself every day knowing he wasn’t asking what he was really transporting because he wouldn’t want to know the answer. Uncertainty is where faith and morals most come into play, not when a person has already determined which path they will take.
While Holy Rollers features a strong performance from Eisenberg, the film itself feels scattered and amateur. The filmmakers are clearly passionate about their subject, but they are too caught up in the authenticity of the Hasidic lifestyle, and do not give nearly enough attention to creating an authentic and believable conflict for their main character. | Matthew F. Newlin