Movie Review: Daniel Radcliffe is a Boy Wizard no more in the chilling “Imperium”.
The abscess of white male xenophobia and far-right nationalism is nothing new in this country. Donald Trump may have brought it out into the open with his ongoing, calamitous presidential run and Jody Hill and Danny McBride’s “Vice Principals” is doing a damn fine job of lampooning this terrible mindset on a week-by-week basis. And yet those who’ve been paying attention know this is stuff is old hat. There is a simmering resentment that exists among those stranded in the flyover states, many of whom feel as though eight years of liberal latte policy courtesy of a “Muslim who wasn’t even born in this country” has been something akin to hell on earth.
Alas, if only the rage could be reduced to one identifiable element — if only it were so simple! The real impetus is far more tangled, but if this year’s countless instances of hateful race baiting have taught us anything, it’s this: the hateful masses aren’t afraid to hide in the shadows anymore. Whether it’s the constant attacks on African-American lives made at the hands of the American police force or even something like the disgusting vitriol spewed at “Ghostbusters” star Leslie Jones, it would appear 2016 is the year that the virulent racist decided to say “come out and play.”
“Imperium,” the new feature by first-time director Daniel Ragussis, does a damn fine job of illuminating the ugliest corners of white male racist psychology. More than that, the film persuasively suggests how an outsider — in this case, a headstrong FBI Agent played by Daniel Radcliffe — might penetrate such an organization without losing his soul in the process. The film is flinty and tough and unsentimental, and the amount of research that Ragussis seems to have done must have run him up some costly therapy bills.
Unfortunately, the film is also straddled with the B-plot of a cookie-cutter Hollywood thriller, and this element of the film is never quite as convincing as its more sociologically-inclined side. It doesn’t derail the enterprise entirely — Ragussis displays a steady, assured directorial hand throughout, and Radcliffe and (most) of the rest of the cast ensure that the result is never boring to watch. Still, one wonders how powerful “Imperium” might have been had it stayed the course in exploring the diseased roots of this movement instead of tacking on police raids and tough guy mano-a-mano dialogue scenes seemingly for the sake of it.
Why did the filmmakers resist the more challenging route here? I’m not sure. Of course, when your lead character is an FBI Agent penetrating a dangerous criminal organization, a certain degree of ehrm, plot, is to be expected. And to the filmmaker’s credit, “Imperium” never truly stumbles — this is a muscular, confident work that’s only frustrating because it’s pretty darn good when it clearly could have been great. Understandably, the subject matter itself will be too ugly for some to stomach, though, as one of the characters says in the film, “just because you pretend something isn’t there, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist”. People should see “Imperium” and be aware of the constant, ongoing racist hate that is allowed to flourish in this country because our leaders are reticent to administer the “terrorist” label when it involves a white, ostensibly tax-paying citizen. Of course, good intentions don’t make a great movie and “Imperium” isn’t quite a great movie but surprisingly, that has more to do with its reliance on action movie tropes than with its supposed politics. There’s a great movie hidden inside the very tense, solid drama we’ve got here, and one only wishes we could get the rote tough-guy stuff out of the way so we could see it a little more clearly.
Radcliffe plays Nate Foster, a levelheaded young federal agent living and working in Washington D.C. When his superior (an acerbic Toni Collette) assigns him to infiltrate a feared network of white supremacists who are tied to various acts of terror and aggression in the greater Washington area, Nate finds himself going deep undercover — shaving his head, boning up on his “Mein Kampf” and learning to walk, talk and act like a Nazi. Radcliffe plays these scenes with droll remove, like a nervous actor preparing for the part of a lifetime.
Once he’s managed to earn the respect of some low-level skinhead goons, Nate finds himself entrenched in various levels of white supremacy. The skinheads reveal themselves mostly as inarticulate, violent thugs — fearful, unintelligent young men acting out on psychological impulses they can’t rationalize. They’re scary, to be sure, but there’s almost no philosophy behind their violence. They’re foot soldiers. A later scene where Nate finds himself at a suburban house party for neo-Nazis is disarming in its black comedy: everyone is smiling, chatting amicably about ‘the movement’ and scarfing down cupcakes with swastika frosting (no, really). This is where we meet Gerry Conway (played by “True Blood’s” Sam Trammell). Conway has the cool-dad vibe of a Connecticut doctor, but he’s one of the most evil characters in this film because he truly believes in this racist doctrine, and has thought about sophisticated means of carrying these philosophies into action. And then there’s Andrew Blackwell (played by Chris Sullivan, who shined as Cleary in “The Knick” and had a one-episode part in “Stranger Things”), the terrifying leader of a small faction of white nationalists who is more frighteningly organized than anyone on the FBI’s side of things.
At first, it takes some getting used to Radcliffe as the kind of steely, inward-looking lawman who might end up as the protagonist in a Michael Mann film. And yes, the erstwhile Harry Potter now bears the distinction of having played a FBI-cum-skinhead AND a flatulent corpse (in “Swiss Army Man”) within the same year. It’s a testament to Radcliffe’s considerable talents that he can draw from the same skill set and apply it equivocally to a disturbing drama like this one and also a comedy as arch and bizarre as “Swiss Army Man”. Radcliffe’s Nate is tightly wound but also instinctually intelligent, which comes in handy during the many contrived scenes in which his character is forced to save his own neck by reciting some nugget of information that only a real skinhead would know. Of course, sustaining a deadlock narrative like this is tough. None of this would mean a thing if Radcliffe wasn’t giving an outstanding performance, however, and he’s the sturdy rock upon which the rest of “Imperium” rests. One can only hope he continues to make bold, potentially polarizing choices like this and “Swiss Army Man” as he moves further into his career.
Chris Sullivan gave one of the most layered and interesting performances on “The Knick” as Tom Cleary, and he’s excellent in “Imperium” too, even when much of his scenes rest on the somewhat tiresome “is-he-or-isn’t-he-a-rat” arc that was perfected in “The Departed” and has been getting recycled ever since. Collette’s sole job, unfortunately, is to dispense with expositional nuggets from the script, though she’s such a pro that sometimes you forget that’s what the filmmakers have clearly asked her to do. Tracy Letts also shows up as a Alex Jones-style fringe radio personality named Dallas Wolf in a subplot that’s intriguing without ever being fully fleshed-out, and the scornful, almost nonthreatening manner in which Letts chooses to play the character is fascinating to behold.
In fact, almost all the acting in “Imperium” is top-notch. The tone of the film is gritty and naturalistic, and bad acting can puncture the mood of a movie like this like a balloon at a children’s birthday party. Before you know it, everybody wants to go home. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen here. Ragussis’ directorial touch is wisely restrained: there’s none of the histrionics that sometimes mar the otherwise noble “American History X,” another, more bombastic movie about the modern-day skinhead epidemic, and the young director’s command of his craft is evident. Ragussis has made two short films before this feature-length one, and he possesses both a gift for framing and a way of working with actors that displays a natural understanding of the medium. He’s even urged neo-Nazis to see his film and when “Imperium” works, it’s because it suggests the kind of righteous ideology that might attract a vulnerable or susceptible mind towards a cause like white nationalism. It neither condemns nor endorses the belief system itself — as if the job of a film is to somehow implicate us in its politics. Rather, the film lays out, with a staggering degree of research and depth, the intricacies of how xenophobia takes root in the mind of someone who is searching for a cause to guide them towards some kind of answer. It’s, of course, troubling to watch. But in a way, it’s also essential.
Oh, did I mention that the organization that Nate is trailing may be planning to build a dirty bomb set in the nation’s capital? Or that the movie ends with a standoff straight out of a Tony Scott movie… one that’s brushed off just a little too neatly? My apologies, reader — it’s just that these elements of “Imperium” stimulated me so much less than its probing look into modern racist organizations and the lost souls that flock to them. The film’s marriage of its overburdened plot with its genuinely stinging social insight often feels cumbersome, resulting in scenarios like the one in which the one black guy Nate knows ends up at a protest for a hate rally and sees him AS A NAZI. Still, in spite of these minor objections, I think you should see the movie — it’s a sharp, focused, disturbing work, and one that feels uncomfortably relevant given today’s headlines. B.