Imperium. 2016. Directed by Daniel Ragussis. Screenplay by Ragussis from a story by Michael German.
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Toni Collette, Tracy Letts, Sam Trammell, Nestor Carbonell, Chris Sullivan, Seth Numrich, Pawel Szajda, Devin Druid, Burn Gorman, Adam Meier, Roger Yawson, Linc Hand, Vanessa Ore, & Jasson Finney.
Atomic Features/Green-Light International/Grindstone Entertainment Group.
Rated R. 109 minutes.
White nationalists be damned. Imperium is a great flick. Instead of focusing on the utter ugliness, the violence, director-writer Daniel Ragussis examines the thought process of hate. The film is centred on an undercover FBI agent Nate Foster (Daniel Radcliffe), whose mission sees him gradually sinking into a group of neo-Nazis and forced to adopt their ideology for an indeterminate amount of time. A film like American History X, great in its own right, looked at racism and white supremacy through the lens of a man who’d long ago succumb to hatred. What Imperium does is use the story of Foster to show us the danger and the lure of supposed white brotherhood, as well as illustrate the way in which infiltrating racist movements is much more dangerous than something like we’ve seen a million times, where cops go undercover against drug dealers, or something similar. Part of the movie’s enjoyable qualities come from the jab at white supremacist bullshit. An equally big part is the way we’re shown undercover work. Lots of films have tackled this, and in wonderful style. But Imperium feels honest, as it demonstrates everything atypically. Even the finale is something to behold because of its refusal to go the same way as most other movies of its kind. On top of the story and how Ragussis directs the material, Radcliffe anchors us with an emotional, at times devastating performance. It isn’t always an easy one. Because what he does is make us see how these people are human. Terrifyingly, they are human beings.
And many people out there, unknown to those privileged with never having to make certain choices or coming up against making the same mistakes as others, are perpetually on the verge of being funnelled towards extremism. The story of the screenplay comes from Michael German. He’s famous for having infiltrated white supremacist and right-wing militant groups undercover over the course of his career with the FBI. He provides a believable groundwork for the screenplay from Ragussis. German’s sensibilities and the way he must have felt working with these types of men comes through in the dialogue, so many times. Furthermore, it shows exactly how someone like him, smaller and less cop-like as the movies usually depict, could manage to stay alive and safe throughout undercover work with dangerous racist groups. The dialogue is sharp. Particularly I love that scene in the diner where Nate meets Vince (Pawel Szajda) for the first time. This swiftly, and excellently, introduces us to the fact Nate is a people person, he is able to steer the flow of conversation and think quick on his feet to respond to anything that comes at him. This is, ultimately, the nature of undercover police work, which is something Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette) literally tells Nate. So, with that scene, it’s unsettling in how real we’re able to grasp what German must have gone through during his undercover work. So many scenes get your blood pumping. The adrenaline is always there, even in the less frantic, wild moments. And that’s a huge reason why I love the movie overall, is that Ragussis doesn’t go for anything outrageous for the finale. A lot of people probably expected a large action-style finish. No, why would there be? The whole movie is about the sly, grey areas where undercover agents live, and where many of these racist groups exist. In following with the tone, Imperium stays true to its beginnings and finishes quietly, subtle. There’s also an almost eerie air to the last few moments.
Radcliffe does a fantastic job. The accent is great, as usual. But more than that he brings us to a visceral place. He doesn’t go overboard, either. With a racist character you might see lots of actors go over-the-top, borderline cartoonish in how they portray that concept. Here, there’s the added layer of his character Nate also being an FBI agent. So what Radcliffe does is create this division in Nate. We see him as an idealistic young guy, but we’re also worried at times that he’s either in over his head, or that he’s becoming jaded. You never know, although you’re sure he’s a good guy. Radcliffe allows us to get to a place where we can see, understand and still hate, exactly where some of these young guys are coming from when they slip in with the worst of the wrong crowd. All the while there’s a great sense of Nate and his duty, his own hatred of the hate these men espouse. He is a wholly complex character, which Radcliffe plays well. Continually a fan of his choices as an actor.
I can’t not mention the score. Not sure if everybody else is listening as hard. That music is great. It’s grim and sombre and intense. All courtesy of Will Bates, whose other credits include Hulu’s The Path and Larry Fessenden’s Beneath, among others. The music truly fits the mood, the atmosphere. Sometimes music can fade into the background. Others it can ruin the whole experience. Then there are films lifted up at an extra end by their sound. Bates provides one of the latter scores, giving the whole movie’s atmosphere another dimension.
This is a heavy piece of cinema, as any film becomes when dealing with racism. Imperium goes for a long, hard look at what these men are doing behind closed doors. It takes aim at certain hypocrisies. One in particular is how people latch onto white nationalist groups simply for the fame, such as the character of Dallas Wolf (Tracy Letts) – you can substitute him for any number of people in the American media landscape today, from Donald Trump to Bill O’Reilly to plenty of others. We see how not everyone preaching the movement of white supremacy is necessarily a white supremacist. They’re a piece of shit, but that doesn’t necessarily make them who they pose as being. And that’s the upsetting angle to the entire story. What many other white people won’t admit is that these racists, not all of them wear the tattoos, the brand, they don’t go around spouting off racial slurs like verbs. They look just like me, or another white guy. They lay in wait and when the time is right, such as when a major Presidential nominee starts campaigning on xenophobia and anti-intellectualism, they break out into the open with their hate.
On the surface, Imperium is an entertaining, based on true events crime-thriller. Underneath, the film has much to say about the terror of white supremacy. Its dangerous lure for those out on the edge, at the fringe; the lost and lonely, the ones who are targeted by such groups as the Aryan Brotherhood and more. The story engages you, but pay attention. Because in this day and age, sadly, those harbouring many of the white nationalist beliefs portrayed in the film are all around us. When that ideology is raging in America, still in 2016, Imperium is an important movie taking a look at issues which threaten us all.