A taut, incisive look into America's hateful underbelly, guided by an understated performance by Daniel Radcliffe.
ImperiumDirector: Daniel Ragussis
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Toni Collette, Sam Trammell
Studio: Tycor International Film Company
US Release Date: 2016-08-19
"Words build bridges into unexplored regions."
-- Adolf Hitler
Imperium opens with the above quote, and relentlessly pursues its meaning for a taut, incisive 100 minutes that feature an understated performance by Daniel Radcliffe as a bookish FBI agent tasked with infiltrating America’s terrifying underbelly.
In the film's early scene, supervising agent Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette) explains to agent Nate Foster (Radcliffe) that everyone perpetuates a narrative which they think is important. And so, Zamparo maintains a diversely read, inquisitive cat like Foster -- a guy who speaks to a young Islamic terrorist suspect with empathy and inquisitiveness -- would be ideal to not only infiltrate, but to understand a more overlooked fascist movement in the United States: neo-Nazism. Significantly, Imperium's abrupt shift in focus away from radical Islamism sets the stage for the rest of the film, which suggests the cancerous effects of absolutism no matter what form it takes.
To this end, first time director Daniel Ragussis' second feature doesn't care much for standard espionage thrills, or an anti-hero's larger than life narration as seen in another film covering white supremacy, American History X. Rather, Imperium dramatically explores the internal machinations of a pockmarked system built by several highly intelligent, yet deeply flawed characters.
Radcliffe -- with his slight frame, absorptive gaze and whip fast inquisitiveness -- serves well as a vessel for the audience to listen and ask questions about the individuals he encounters, rather than quickly judge them as villainous cretins. In this regard, his performance in Imperium may not be a calling card as a post-Harry Potter lead. Radcliffe effectively contains himself as a guide within the by far larger forces at work, and this is more serviceable to the kind of uniquely perceptive filmmaking Imperium often accomplishes.
Imperium's biggest thrills are derived from its lived-in moments, of which there are many. Ragussis is more interested in how his characters think on an everyday afternoon than in providing flurries of action-suspense. Thus, Imperium spends several minutes focusing on an anti-Semitic conversation at a diner, in which loosely connective logic builds to a feverish pitch.
Later in the film, a neo-Nazi ring leader, Gerry (Sam Trammell), blends with unsettling ease into his lustrous nuclear family existence -- tree house and all -- with softly spoken belligerence. One moment Jerry’s noshing on cheeseburgers in a fluorescent lit modern kitchen with his kids, the next he's attending a nighttime neo-Nazi wedding decorated with burning swastikas. In each of these instances, Imperium argues that the line between a banal-seeming world and the act of terrorism is razor thin, and uncomfortably close to home. Herein is Imperium’s most compelling suspense element.
Imperium's greatest strength is also an evident weakness. The film’s linear plot -- whether Nate will stop the neo-Nazis from dumping radioactive material into a water source before his cover is blown -- is merely fictional glue, and try as it does to generate thrills, it lacks a "whodunnit" or action packed pop. For every lead Nate follows for the better part of the film, he reaches yet another dead end of rhetoric or absolutist logic; after a while, one's patience may be tested as to when one of Nate’s home visits to yet another white supremacist will get his case rolling. Perhaps some of that expectation, however, may be from the instant-gratification standard set by popular undercover agent films over the last few decades, such as Donnie Brasco, or The Departed.
Imperium involves a quieter kind of systemic study. The film's most compelling character is its title, which means “absolute power” in Latin. But as it turns out, Imperium is nothing but absolute; rather, it's an amalgam of hatred, confusion, victimization, narcissism, or as Nate admits himself to be afflicted by, misunderstanding and loneliness. It can be harnessed in many ways, from a book reference perhaps, and even from its most well-meaning sources.
Near the end of the film, Nate shares with Zamparo a well earned and heartfelt Lord Byron passage: "This should have been a noble creature: he hath all the energy which would have made a goodly frame of glorious elements, had they been wisely mingled."
But even given the gravity of Nate's words, Zamparo's expression is more reactive than absorptive. She's merely waiting to make a barely relational point from her own worldview on fascism, and on why she hand picked Nate as an undercover agent. This is a subtle miscommunication, but still deeply problematic.
Making a film on such a concept may not make for a great popcorn thriller, but it does make for a poignant and horrifyingly relevant work.