Despite the misleading title, Holy Rollers is not a film about an offbeat Protestant talking in tongues. It is, instead, a harrowing, fact-based footnote to the history of the illicit drug trade, involving a small group of Hasidic Jews who were recruited as mules to smuggle ecstasy from Europe into the U.S. in the late 1990s. For a period of six months between 1998 and 1999, officials estimate this small ring of young orthodox Jews imported more than one million ecstasy pills from Amsterdam to New York. Holy Rollers is about how they did it, and about one boy in particular who grew up so fast that his life changed irrevocably as a result.
Jesse Eisenberg is excellent as Sammy Gold, a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn who works in his father’s fabric store on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, with an arranged marriage pending and plans to become a rabbi. Watching his family struggle to find enough money to afford something as simple as a new stove while spending hours in Hebrew school and facing approaching manhood with no guarantee of economic security, Sammy is torn between the claustrophobic community of orthodox Judaism and the excitement of the secular world outside the synagogue. When a neighbor named Yosef is suddenly spotted sporting a new Rolex watch, Sammy’s envy is understandable. Yosef opens a new window, with tales of fast cars, beautiful girls and material financial security, and offers the curious Sammy $1,000 to import “medicine” from Europe. Stimulated by the idea of easy money, he naïvely decides to give the potentially lucrative job a try, so he and his best friend, Leon, fly to Amsterdam, spend one night in the heart of the red-light district and return with suitcases full of illegal ecstasy. It’s the faster road to luxury than Sammy has ever dreamed about.
Who could look less suspicious passing through customs than an orthodox Jew dressed in black and wearing a porkpie hat and long curls?
Suspecting something dangerous and immoral about their little caper, Leon is so traumatized by the experience that he retires after one job, but Sammy is hooked by the lure of prosperity. In Amsterdam, this corrupted innocent would still rather visit the Anne Frank house, but there’s no time. Instead, he gets his first vision-blurring hit of ecstasy from a party girl named Rachel (played by an Ellen Barkin look-alike named Ari Graynor, who has lit up many a Broadway stage) and an eye-opening tour of Amsterdam’s sex clubs, as well as of a serious Ethiopian drug operation, surrounded by security guards with machine guns, run by a gang of Israeli businessmen; it produces 100,000 pills an hour. Learning fast on the job, Sammy becomes not only a trusty smuggler but a crafty salesman, too, moving the stuff on the streets of Brooklyn for a hefty profit-a valuable part of a transatlantic courier service that slips effortlessly in and out of J.F.K. undetected. Who could look less suspicious passing through customs than an orthodox Jew dressed in black and wearing a porkpie hat and long curls? Of course, it’s not long before Sammy’s double life goes haywire; his family disowns him; and he cuts off his Hasidic curls and graduates to the role of drafting new mules, dispensing the same sage advice he was taught: “Relax, have a good time, mind your business and act Jewish.” The bubble finally bursts when the new kids he recruits clumsily meet up face to face with drug-sniffing airport dogs. A drug-trafficking empire with guns and matzoh balls comes to a violent end, and Leon, his poor but respectable old friend who has since married Sammy’s intended bride and moved closer to becoming a rabbi, comforts Sammy on the front steps of his modest Brooklyn home as the sound of approaching police sirens grows louder.