The stigma of a beloved hero of incalculable fame and popularity can be a hard one to overcome for certain actors attempting to be taken more seriously. In the years since the Harry Potter films, Daniel Radcliffe has been attempting to shed his Boy Who Lived moniker by picking some very complex, very interesting, very not-Potter film roles. With each one, I go “Oh, Daniel Radcliffe can’t do that,” and each time I’ve been proven immeasurably wrong. In a year that had him play a farting dead body, we also get Imperium, where Radcliffe goes undercover with white supremacists, and is outstanding.
Imperium is the feature debut for writer-director Daniel Ragussis and is in part based on a true story of an FBI agent who goes undercover to unearth a possible terrorist plot by white supremacists. While the filmmaking seems much more self-assured than one might expect, the screenplay, in many ways, feels like exactly what a first-timer would write. Not stuffed with Tarantino-esque witticisms or pop culture references, but a lot of info-dumping and talking openly about theme, especially toward the beginning. However, as the movie goes on, the viewer can’t help but be drawn in to the terrifying, oddly petty world of these hate groups.
Radcliffe plays Nate Foster, an FBI analyst who doesn’t get to do much field work, but who possesses an aptitude for talking to suspects and making them trust him. While most of the Bureau works on Muslim terrorists, Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette) heads up the neo-Nazi task force and thinks Nate would be perfect as an undercover operative. He commits himself fully to learning about the “plight” of the white supremacists and — after one of the briefest learning montages in history — he is set up in a small town in Virginia where a lot of activity is happening. Zamparo’s goal is to trap a hate-spewing radio personality (Tracy Letts) whom she believes has stolen some volatile chemicals, or at least knows something about it.
While Nate gets in with the local skinheads (a very violent group), he has to think on his feet to keep his cover while stopping several crimes, using the argument that a white man in prison can’t do any good for the movement. Things start to become much more interesting when he’s brought to a meeting of various factions, all of which seem to hate or at least look down on each other. The KKK gets looked down on by the Skinheads who get looked down on by Neo-Nazis, etc. At the heart of it is a seemingly peaceful and nice, wealthy man named Gerry (Sam Trammell) who likes classical music and has a lovely family. It’s in Gerry that Nate finds one of the few people he can connect with who doesn’t feel like a threat, but everybody’s a threat in this kind of case.
As I said earlier, a lot of the script is clunky, especially early on, but the acting mostly makes up for it. Once Nate is beginning his undercover mission, the stakes begin to rise as his investigation switches from group to group as he tries to figure out who knows what about a possible Oklahoma City-like terrorist attack. The mystery and procedural aspect, along with Radcliffe trying his best to keep it together with everyone suspicious of this new guy, are easily the most compelling. The performances truly are excellent as well, with Radcliffe, Letts, and Trammell all being standouts.
This is not an easy movie to watch and it will no doubt strike fear in people who’ve perhaps forgotten about or grown complacent about white supremacists. They’re real and they’re a threat, and should be talked about a lot more than they are, especially in a year like this with major political party leaders spewing the views they are. Ultimately, despite the script’s shortcomings, Imperium and its message and performances will stick with you, and you’ll feel upset for a good long while after. And, wrack up another win for Daniel Radcliffe.
Image: Lionsgate Premiere