It’s always interesting to see the ends to which the criminal element of any society will go to for the chance at a profit. Frank Lucas famously smuggled heroin into the United States for nearly a decade using the coffins of dead U.S soldiers from Vietnam, chronicled in many films including Ridley Scott’s American Gangster. A lesser known smuggling scheme took place in the late 1990s using Hasidic Jews as dope mules for ecstasy pills, bringing in the drugs from overseas back into the United States, chronicled in Holy Rollers.
Sam (Jesse Eisenberg) is a rabbinical student who is more interested in earning a quick buck than he is in studying the Torah. When his neighbor Yosef (Justin Bartha) brings him into the fold by offering him a deal to bring in “medicine” from overseas for Israeli drug dealer Jackie (Danny A. Abeckaser) and his girlfriend Rachel (Ari Grayner), Sam’s aptitude for the drug game leaves his life spiraling out of control as he discovers a lot about himself (and the wonders of drugs and alcohol). And for a while the film is a tight crime thriller and character study about a young man being corrupted until it falls apart with an uneven final act.
For the film’s first two acts, with Sam being introduced to and rising in the smuggling world, the film is a tight character study on the effects of money and power. Sam wants more from life than to merely be a Rabbi who assists with his father shop. He wants money, and lots of it, and his naiveté is what Yosef exploits to get him into this illicit activity. Credit Bartha for being able to play his usual smarmy role but tailor it for a bit more evil and a lot more Jewish; it’s a tough role for anyone to play and he does so admirably.
As we see Sam get into the world we see him grow but not necessarily in a direction we like; Sam goes from merely being a kid unsure of his place in the world to someone who has no qualms trading on his heritage and religion for cash.
Jesse Eisenberg has played similar roles before as a young man trying to learn the rules of the world, so this isn’t new to him, but it’s a role he does well because he has a youthful innocence to him. This isn’t nearly his most accomplished performance but it’s one of his deeper ones, as he gives Sam a depth that elevates the film’s obligatory crime thriller plot (the rise and fall of [x]) some interest. There’s a lot of nuance to what he does that keeps the film tightly wound.
It’s in Kevin Asch’s final act where the film falls over itself as Sam, who has since elevated himself in the game of smuggling ecstasy pills, doesn’t have a final character arc to complete. His character seems to fall backwards in development, taking away a lot from Eisenberg’s performance. There’s a grander film than the small indy crime film with a bit of a hook (Hasidic Jews as smugglers) somewhere in this film wanting to come out towards the end, but Holy Rollers can’t seem to find it.
Director: Kevin Asch Notable Cast: Q-Tip, Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Bartha, Ari Grayner, Danny A Abeckaser, Jason Fuchs Writer(s): Antonio Macia