Film Review: Imperium

Daniel Radcliffe plays an introverted FBI analyst tagged to infiltrate the neo-Nazi underground in this dud of a thriller that never syncs up its personal drama with the realism of its setting.
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Things are hard for FBI analyst Nate (Daniel Radcliffe) in Imperium, a wan, if solidly researched, undercover thriller. He’s a quiet little weed of a friendless analyst who compensates with quiet dinners alone and classical music. The other agents call him “egghead” and treat him much as a high-school football team relates to their school’s Math League champion. Nevertheless, after agent Angela (Toni Collette, chewing the scenery as intently as her ever-present Nicorette) spots Nate deftly interrogating a Somali terrorism suspect, she sees an opportunity in his loner status and reservoir of useful empathy. When a shipment of cesium goes missing in Washington, D.C., Angela suspects a local cell of white supremacists connected to a right-wing radio host with the fantastic nom de guerre Dallas Wolf (Tracy Letts) of wanting to use it to build a dirty bomb. And she has just the guy to send into their midst.

After a short, blunt sales pitch by Angela that hones in with sniper-like precision on his insecurities, Nate signs on with hard-to-believe speed. He goes from being the picked-on nerd of the FBI to shaving his head, establishing cover as a disenchanted ex-Marine WMD specialist, and highlighting key passages in Mein Kampf. It’s a striking transformation, and meaningfully so. Once the hair and glasses are tossed by the wayside and Nate straps on his new identity as government-hating skinhead looking to be the next Timothy McVeigh, Radcliffe plugs into that seam of wounded and slightly frantic idealism that sustained him throughout the Harry Potter series. It is also all he needs to gain swift entry into a surprisingly non-suspicious network of skinheads, Klansmen, neo-Nazis, and a constellation of white-power types hiding their molten core of genocidal rage behind a veneer of suburban normalcy. Once in, all Nate needs to do is figure out where all that cesium went.

Imperium goes wrong almost from the start. Clipped scenes that are often as awkwardly written as they are framed tumble into each other in a tonal mash-up. The film doesn’t know whether to aim for hard-bitten procedural or introspective drama and ends up an ungainly hybrid of the two. Courtesy of Michael German, the former FBI agent who went undercover in the white-nationalist underground and has a story credit here, director and writer Daniel Ragussis seems to get most of the details right. That will confuse viewers who don’t know that “ZOG” stands for “Zionist Occupied Government.” But that verisimilitude doesn’t extend beyond the surface; the film’s psychological realism is never more than painted on.

Ragussis’ characters suffer from the same confusion. Angela is little more than an exposition machine, lecturing Nate on the history of homegrown white-supremacist terrorism. Nate’s connection to Gerry (Sam Trammell), the suburban dad whose genial surface hides the maniac teaching his kids to prepare for a race war, is played up as the emotional core of the story. But no matter how many scenes pair the two bonding over Tchaikovsky and Brahms (Gerry apologizing for liking a Jewish conductor like Leonard Bernstein), there’s never any there there. Letts’ wily portrayal of the firebrand with more mercenary than larceny in him is one of the few standout performances, as is Chris Sullivan’s (“The Knick”) as an ominous, slow-burn white-power leader who begins to suspect Nate’s bona fides.

Nate’s character is so closed off at first that it’s only with his transformation, slyly impressing the thuggish skins with his training and knowledge, that he even begins to register onscreen. It’s as though these racists, spewing bile at the rest of what they consider a fallen and unworthy world but treating Nate as a prodigal son, have provided him a community that he never before knew. If Imperium had tackled that schizophrenia in Nate, then there might have been some grit here. Instead, Ragussis trusts too much in the shock value of seeing Radcliffe uncomfortably take on this skinhead persona and far too little in the psychological and moral minefield his story could have explored. After all this time in the psychotic depths of the white-power movement’s racial sickness, Imperium’s by-the-book anticlimax of a conclusion is hardly enough.

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