With director Daniel Ragussis’ feature debut, the war on terror comes a little closer to home. Indeed, Imperium is based on the stories of FBI agents who have gone undercover into the world of white supremacist factions in order to uncover planned terrorist actions from inside our own country.
For Nate Foster (Daniel Radcliffe), a nerdy FBI analyst who’s never allowed in on the action, his ability to work with people makes him the perfect candidate to be recruited by Toni Collette’s Angela Zamparo, a higher-up who’s running the investigation into skinhead culture. But it’s more than just about Nate shaving his head; he must also go into full immersion mode in order to infiltrate a smaller white supremacist group that has connections to the hate-spewing radio host Dallas Wolf (Tracy Letts), especially since the talking head may be planning an event that would cause a race war in the United States.
The first thing you’ll probably think of when reading about this movie is Edward Norton in American History X or Ryan Gosling in The Believer, both great movies and fair benchmarks for any movie dealing with white supremacists. In this case, it comes from the point of view of the FBI trying to keep track of dangerous factions, and it brings an added degree of authenticity from Ragussis’ co-writer, actual FBI agent Mike German. This collaboration helps to make Imperium feel believable with one of the more unnerving moments being when Nate is brought to a BBQ for a number of white supremacist factions planning a rally in D.C. at the house of a family man (Sam Trammell) who is already teaching his kids his own racist rhetoric.
Radcliffe works quite well as Nate, although it’s not exactly a performance on par with Norton or Gosling. Radcliffe’s best scenes are the ones with Toni Collette as Nate’s handler. It’s also a fairly different role for Radcliffe that he mostly makes work, particularly during the pivotal dramatic scenes. For instance, whenever Nate is close to being discovered, which should be some of the film’s most suspenseful moments, he raises his voice and swears a lot, as if that might help reduce their suspicions, and it works every time. (While I rarely like to comment an actor’s appearance, Radcliffe probably should have also shaved down those trademark bushy eyebrows of his to make himself more menacing as a skinhead.)
The cast around Radcliffe and Collette do a great deal to bolster the film’s authenticity with some actors like Chris Sullivan giving such strong performances, you almost wonder whether they were cast from actual white supremacists. And then you have the absolute brilliant casting of the underrated Letts (also excellent in the recent Philip Roth drama Indignation) as the vile radio loudmouth Wolf. Trammell also gives an admiral turn, giving you a strong sense of the character dynamics between him and Wolf, which play a large part in the film working as much as it does.
It’s hard not to think politically when watching a movie like this, because it feels like this country is going down this spiraling abyss where it’s becoming increasingly more common for racism to exist and be accepted. The amount of Nazi and KKK imagery Ragussis uses to create the proper tone for his film is somewhat disconcerting as necessary as it might feel, but it’s still bothersome to think some might choose to view this movie as some sort of glorification of racism or white supremacy, which is definitely a danger when you play in this wheelhouse.
All in all, Imperium is a thoughtfully-written drama that touches upon some very timely matters but it’s far from flawless. Ragussis’ abilities as a director is still a bit underdeveloped, yet he’s created an intriguingly layered story with enough twists to keep one from guessing where things may go.It tackles an important subject matter in an authentic way, and ultimately forces the viewer to think about these things, whether they want to believe that people like this exist and that something like this might actually happen or not.
Imperium opens in select cities and on VOD on Friday, Aug. 19.