Imperium | Review
Made in USA: Radcliffe Infiltrates Neo-Nazi Faction in Solid Potboiler
Daniel Radcliffe impresses once again in an unlikely bit of casting as an FBI agent who goes undercover as a neo-Nazi in writer/director Daniel Ragussis’ debut, Imperium, adapted from a story by Michael German, who draws upon actual examples from his time as a member of the bureau. Likely to draw immediate comparison to formidable items such as The Believer and American History X, films featuring names like Ryan Gosling and Edward Norton in intense performances early on in their careers, Radcliffe’s presence feels unprecedented enough to allow this examination to stand out. While not nearly as emotionally draining or powerfully commanding as the references it courts, the film is a solidly efficient thriller which manages to stubbornly spell out its subtexts on the attraction of fascism for troubled white youths. At a time when race relations are still violently parsed throughout a nation hindered by a troubling brew of political correctness, increased ignorance regarding systemic racism, and the continued lack of understanding or acceptance for anything or one existing outside the white, heteronormative majority, several aggressive moments in the film are granted a more chilling dimension thanks to continuing topicalities dominating media headlines.
Nate Foster (Radcliffe) is an idealistic FBI agent who is quickly disillusioned with his job after tailing a would-be terrorist only to discover he’s more an ignorant victim instead of a criminal mastermind. Approached by co-worker Agent Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette), Foster is convinced to go undercover as a skinhead to infiltrate a right-wing terrorist group, a dangerous group flying under the radar, although their white supremacist ideology has systematically and historically caused more homegrown unrest than anyone would like to address or realize. Attempting to retain a semblance of his own values, Nate decides to take the plunge, which results in some realizations about who he is as well as who can be readily defined as an enemy of the state.
Ragussis makes worthwhile use of Radcliffe as a sensitive overachiever, a lover of classical music who is socially awkward (he reads Thomas Hardy over a glass of expensive wine most buy for special occasions, as indicated by the reaction of a liquor store employee whose race later provides the film with its most potent snippet of anguish) and wishes nothing more than to make a difference—but in the right way. As his gum-chewing foil (a character related smoking tic which sometimes feels distracting because it seems the performer has little else to work with), Collette is brashly believable, and one gets the sense something more useful could have been done with her had their agency been the thrust of the narrative.
Instead, Imperium is intent with providing despicable episodes of atrociously ignorant behavior from the moronic victims cum perpetrators representative of the low-hangers making up skin head factions. This results in either compelling or middle brow soapboxing, but there’s pulpy entertainment to be had courtesy of an insidiousness personality played by Tracy Letts’ (the playwright appearing, once again, in formidably fine form) radio personality Dallas Wolf.
A less persuasive rendering is the milquetoast suburbanite with a taste for music (who confesses an admiration for Leonard Bernstein) played by Sam Trammel, a characterization comparatively less interesting, and suspiciously coded as a harbinger of latent homosexual tension. Although obvious in its implications, Imperium effectively establishes a sense of menace and dismay, made more empathetic by Radcliffe’s underdog (although more could have been deliberated about his internal struggle, seeing as he’s a white social misfit specifically chosen because of how he can assume the believable persona and empathize so readily with Fascist inclined bigots). Because of this mixture of tip-toeing vs. the sobering realities in the script’s obvious proselytizing, Rasgussis’ film works best during its build-up sequences, when it hints or promises at greater reveals and more complicated possibilities, with budget constrained law enforcement agencies strapped for cash as they wage invisible wars with pockets of subversive criminalities existing all around us.