For some reason, the American independent film milieu of 2016 has been uniquely concerned with two notable themes – exploring modern white supremacy and giving Daniel Radcliffe unusual and interesting roles to shake off the specter of Harry Potter. Just this year, Green Room gave us a haunted-house thriller featuring neo-Nazis, and Radcliffe himself is still on the heels of a transcendently novel performance in Swiss Army Man. Somehow, writer/director Daniel Ragussis’ Imperium finds itself mildly connected to both of these films, and ends up as a serviceable but unremarkable thriller.
Radcliffe plays bookish FBI agent Nate Foster, an introverted but innately empathetic person whose people skills attracts the attention of FBI handler Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette, constantly chomping on gum with élan), who recruits him to infiltrate a neo-Nazi group in Virginia to track an illegally imported supply of cesium-137. Armed with nothing but his wits and a copy of How to Win Friends & Influence People, Nate infiltrates and engages with the lost souls of the modern neo-Nazi movement in order to learn about their next attack, constantly hoping that his cover holds as he goes deeper and deeper into the culture of the alt-right.
For the most part, Imperium operates as a no-frills undercover thriller, with the usual functionalism that entails. Happily, Ragussis manages to juggle those elements well, even if he doesn’t break the mold stylistically – his droning electronic soundtrack and dim, desaturated photography fits the Soderbergh/Haggis mold of the modern thriller to a tee, while throwing in subliminal flashes of white supremacist imagery (cross burnings, white hoods, Nazi marches) to shock the viewer into submission.
Where Imperium is most intriguing is in the questions it asks about the social conditions that create these hate groups. One early scene sees Nate leveling with a suspect they have successfully bagged in a terrorist sting operation. He understands why the man became radicalized: “you want to change things so others don’t suffer the way you did.” The same practice is shared with the white supremacists he infiltrates; he asks himself frequently, “How can you reason with someone like that? How can you change their mind?” Nate’s approach isn’t just to pull a tough-guy routine: he corners people and earns their confidence, deftly navigating the white power marches and conservative-radio conferences that make up the world of American white supremacy.
Radcliffe, to his credit, manages to eke a respectable amount of pathos from a character who, by definition, is a blank slate when the film begins. There’s nothing here that allows him to get quite as weird as he does in Swiss Army Man, but the mere concept of a fully-shorn Harry Potter throwing out n-words and talking about “Jew jeans” inspires a fair bit of novelty. His big, innocent eyes and imperfect American accent aside, Radcliffe continues a string of genuinely fascinating performances here, infusing Nate with an admirable resourcefulness and depth of feeling.
Imperium lends a few shades of nuance to the thought processes behind white supremacy, a surprising tactic that disgusts as much as it enthralls. Neo-Nazis aren’t just skinheads who accost interracial couples across the street; they’re ordinary-looking dads like Gerry (Sam Trammell), who eats veggie burgers and builds treehouses for his children. The film offers the thesis that “there really is only one fundamental ingredient of fascism: it’s victimhood” – hate as a consequence of disenfranchisement. It’s this undercurrent that Imperium explores: just like Nate, the film wonders what it would take to reach these people, to show them the hatred in what they’re espousing and get them to change their ways.
Given the divisive tenor that has risen up around this year’s election cycle, it’s hard to deny the presence and power of such a base, which perhaps elevates Imperium’s subject matter above the boilerplate FBI thriller trappings under which it functions. If you want to see a nuts-and-bolts look into the banality of evil, with a curiously strong Daniel Radcliffe performance at the center, Imperium fits the bill.