The central conceit of Imperium — Daniel Radcliffe playing an FBI agent who goes undercover as a white supremacist — is laughable, and the film, to its credit, knows this. Harry Potter as a skinhead? Don’t worry, that’s all part of the plan. Well, maybe. Writer-director Daniel Ragussis tries to work a weird mixture of ridiculousness and outrage. He doesn’t really succeed, but you have to admire the effort.
“There’s only one essential ingredient to fascism. It’s victimhood.” That line is spoken at the very end, but the preceding narrative, and Radcliffe’s performance, bear it out. When we first meet Nate Foster (Radcliffe), he’s foiling an impending terror attack in Washington, D.C., all while enduring the barbs of his FBI colleagues for being a novice and an Ivy Leaguer. When it turns out that a supposed terror mastermind Nate brought down was actually coerced into planning the attack by undercover operatives — a clear case of entrapment — the young agent becomes an even bigger punchline. For a moment it seems the movie’s about to turn into a dumb office comedy about an FBI guy who can’t do anything right. Nate certainly fits the part: He likes to sit at home listening to classical music, drinking red wine and reading The Mayor of Casterbridge. That’s movie shorthand for “loser.”
Then into his life swings agency bigwig Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette), a brash, ball-busting veteran who misses the thrill of the chase and is convinced that the recent disappearance of six canisters of cesium has something to do with a popular right-wing author and radio host named Dallas Wolf (Tracy Letts, looking like Rush Limbaugh and sounding like David Duke). While the rest of the FBI wants to infiltrate Muslim communities to look for the missing radioactive material, Angela is certain American neo-Nazis are planning an Oklahoma City–style terrorist attack. She convinces the reluctant Nate to pose as an Iraq vet and chemical-weapons expert to infiltrate the white nationalist underground and take down Wolf. Nate protests that he doesn’t have the skills, that he’s a weakling who doesn’t know what he’s doing. Angela retorts that those are the very skills the young man needs: He’s a guy who’s spent his life being bullied, with no close friends and an unhappy childhood. His weakness is his strength.
Radcliffe has effectively shed the nerd chic of his Harry Potter years, but he still gives off a vibe of wan hesitancy; that’s one of the reasons he made such an effective innocent in this year’s sentient-corpse movie Swiss Army Man. His earnest dorkiness lends a lively tension to Nate’s initial forays into the world of white supremacists: He doesn’t quite fit with all their aggro bravado, and watching him try is somewhat entertaining. And the kid is smart, too: Nate taps into the animating spirit of extremist types and conspiracy theorists everywhere — that there’s secret knowledge out there, hiding beneath the everyday, and you just have to be smart enough to put it all together. “There’s really only a handful of people who know what’s going on,” he tells his fellow skinheads. “I want to be one of them.”
Imperium isn’t afraid to make you laugh, often bitterly, especially at the disconnect between these people’s insanely hateful rhetoric and the spectacle of them trying to live semi-ordinary lives. At a pleasant garden party where swastika cupcakes are passed around, Nate talks to kids who’ve built a treehouse “to protect us when the mud people come.” He meets a family man and engineer (Sam Trammell) who talks Brahms and offers unsolicited parenting tips before delving into the story of how a brief work contract in Kenya convinced him that black people couldn’t handle civilization.
We also see these various organizations — each with its own specific angle on the coming race war — bicker and preen over status. (“The Aryan Alliance … I’ve heard a lot about you guys.” “Well, we’re the premier white-supremacist group in the world, so that’s not surprising.”) And apparently neo-Nazis have their own highly restrictive takes on what one shouldn’t eat and wear: Ketchup is a no-no, because it’s been approved as kosher by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis. Levi’s jeans are bad because Levi Strauss was a Jew. (“We can’t control the ketchup. But we can control the streets!”)
Alas, a drama can only survive for so long on these kinds of pointed discrepancies. Somebody eventually has to emerge as a real character or a real threat. Perhaps to compensate for that absent sense of danger, Ragussis includes rapid-fire photo montages filled with angry faces and incendiary imagery taken from archival material showing the very real presence of this type of extremism in American life. The montages make for effective interludes, but it’s hard to reconcile their fearsome imagery with the vaguely inept folks Nate hangs out with. Maybe that’s the idea — to show us how even a few bumbling cretins can potentially cause great damage and tear a country apart. (The current election certainly bears this out.) But that still requires the characters and the milieu to come through in some vivid fashion. Instead, people pass by Nate’s radar, and we hear plenty from them about Aryan nationalism and whatnot, but they remain mouthpieces. Amid all the posturing, the world that Nate and these skinhead losers inhabit feels too paltry and underdeveloped.
Also: Hey, remember the cesium? I’m not sure Ragussis even cares about it; he loses that thread for extended periods of time. Maybe he thinks of it as a MacGuffin. But as a genre tale about an undercover agent, Imperium never really builds a narrative head of steam. For all its intriguing tonal shifts and weird attempts to blend humor and menace, the film neither plunges into its world nor makes us care about its story.