Posted March 11, 2011 by Peter D. Marsay in DVD/Blu-ray

Holy Rollers

Jesse Eisenberg’s star continues to rise, thanks to first-time feature director Kevin Asch’s low-key thriller, Holy Rollers, the fact-based story of Sam Gold

Jesse Eisenberg’s star continues to rise, thanks to first-time feature director Kevin Asch’s low-key thriller, Holy Rollers, the fact-based story of Sam Gold, a young man gradually tempted away from his strict but stable Hasidic upbringing into a risky underworld of girls, partying and ecstasy.

Asch’s 2005 short film Characters, an interesting and hilarious tribute to Al Pacino, demonstrated his confidence behind the camera, leading to him taking the reigns here, and Asch deservedly won Breakthrough Director at the 2010 Gotham Awards for his efforts.

When we first meet Sam he is something of a passive character, allowing his Rabbi and Father to make all of his life decisions for him. He isn’t particularly troubled by this, but by no means is he enamoured with it either. Raised to follow tradition and to let others take the lead, his whole life has set him up to be vulnerable to the whirlwind of temptations which soon invades his life.

At his synagogue, we witness Sam listening to the Rabbi speak about how all men must learn where they stand in relation to God and how everything a man does either takes him closer to, or further away from God. When Sam first accepts an offer from his neighbour Yosef to take the job of smuggling pills from Europe to the US, Sam doesn’t quite know what he is getting himself into; a naive blindness which helps ease his transition from mild mannered Hasid to fully fledged drug runner.

The cinematography by Ben Kutchins at first threatens to be too deliberately gritty, with the first few shots suffering from awkward focusing and incongruous shakiness. It soon takes shape however, morphing into something unmistakably emotive and appropriate. Perhaps the camera shake becomes subtler, but whatever the case, the way that outdoor night scenes in particular are photographed creates an incrementally bleaker atmosphere, as Sam’s choices take their toll on his conscience, his family, and his standing in the community.

The crux of the story lies in the balance between Sam’s religion, and the amoral lifestyle offered by his new line of work. He is given chance after chance to turn his life around and each time he experiments with some new vice, another layer is peeled back on the dangerous truth of his situation.

Eisenberg is excellent, delivering a fine and nuanced performance and standing out even in a film that features plenty of other accomplished performances, such as from Danny A. Abeckaser as Sam’s gangster employer and the lovely Ari Graynor as his boss’s girlfriend, for whom Sam develops a dicey infatuation.

Holy Rollers is a solidly made, coming-of-age morality tale set in the opposing worlds of orthodox religion and reckless abandon. If the usual cinematic thrills of the early Summer season are not your thing, perhaps this well paced, slice of independent cinema is.

Peter D. Marsay

I'm a filmmaker based in London, freelancing as a cameraman, camera assistant, editor, writer & director. I have a Sony HXR-NX5 camera, camera assistant kit & Final Cut Pro 7 edit suite.