Imperium is not the first time this year we’ve seen the world of white supremacy from the inside: the first, of course, was Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, a stylish toe-dip into the punk scene of neo-Nazis that carefully kept the hate-filled rhetoric safely within the confines of the screen. But Imperium is a whole different beast. The directorial debut from Daniel Ragussis eschews comfortable remove in favor of decidedly uncomfortable intimacy, quite literally placing his central hero (Daniel Radcliffe) and the audience deep within the social strata of a virulently racist white supremacist group rumored to be building a dirty bomb.
Though the film’s elevator pitch may call up images of Edward Norton’s swastika-emblazoned chest to the mind (especially considering much of the film’s buzz has focused on the boyishly innocent Daniel Radcliffe’s neo-Nazi turn), Imperium isn’t American History X. In fact, Ragussis seems rather uninterested in the psychological underpinnings of the men involved with the white supremacist movement. Instead, he examines both the potential violence of a group—often discounted as too disorganized or dumb to be dangerous—along with the creeping similarities they might share with those of the more unprejudiced set (that is, people like you and me).
Radcliffe plays Nate Parker, an underused and generally misunderstood young member of the FBI, whose predilection for Brahms and uncanny ability to get inside lawbreakers’ heads makes him a pariah around the FBI office. Approached by an enterprising senior agent (Toni Collette) after a particularly impressive showing of his in an interrogation tank, Nate is persuaded to go undercover in a potentially dangerous white supremacist group, to gather intel on a group that is responsible for the most terror threats on our soil. And stop any potential violence.
Imperium drops Nate into the group luckily without any variation of a lengthy training montage, Ragussis preferring instead to watch Nate “study up” with documentary-esque slides of the real-life faces behind the last few decades of neo-Nazi violence (which, of course, also serves as a shocking exposé for the audience). As is to be expected, much of the film’s initial tension is gleaned from Nate’s charade and the very real possibility of being found out—especially as he raises the group’s hackles over his choice of denim brand on their very first meeting; Levi’s 501’s are the first of many times he has to think quick on his toes to verbally defend himself.
But while Imperium’s thriller elements are effective, the film succeeds most in its smaller, more mundane flourishes – making it ultimately more stomach-churning than even Saulnier’s most shocking eviscerations. In one such flourish, we see the wife of a prominent organizer innocently present cupcakes iced with black swastikas to Nate, murmuring half-apologies for their slapdash appearance. In another, Nate arrives at the home of a particularly powerful supremacist radio personality (Tracy Letts) only to be greeted at the door by a frail old woman who lets him in with an encouraging smile. Going further still, Ragussis draws direct parallels between a senior supremacist (Sam Trammell) and Nate himself as the two enjoy a Brahms composition that once garnered him public shaming at the FBI.
Imperium unfolds not unlike a Wikipedia deep-dive of any range of dark topics (neo-Nazism, serial killings, unsolved mysteries, whatever black hole of the Internet you might find yourself at 1AM on a Tuesday)—and is unsettling in the same way, as it reminds both Nate and the audience that yes, these movements are very real, and they could very well be happening just next door.
With perhaps the exception of Collette, who isn’t given much to do beyond representing the complicated bureaucracy of the law, the cast is all operating at career highs. Letts delivers an eerily grounded performance that adds to his 2016 case for a second, thespian phase of the playwright’s career (check out Indignation for further proof) and Trammell (True Blood) is downright chilling with a glowing, dad-next-door charm that belies his philosophical necrosis. But Radcliffe is far and away the gem of the film, as the still-young actor confidently comes into his own (between this and Swiss Army Man, all memories of Harry Potter are but a distant mental footnote)—oscillating between blind panic, impassivity, and rare moments of unguarded joy.
It’s difficult to talk about Imperium in a purely critical sense—its very DNA is intertwined in a political statement (that white supremacism is the biggest threat to national security) that is so convincing and deeply troubling that it feels nearly sufficient to call it important, nearly required viewing. On the technical side, the film suffers from certain marks of a first-time director: uneven pacing plagues the first act of the film and the script seems occasionally afraid to go quite as far as one might think this sort of film arguably should. But the whole effect of Imperium is of a film that’s found a satisfying combination of genre thrills and real-life implications, resulting in a movie that, if not the first to tackle the subject matter, is certainly one of the best.
Imperium opens in select cities August 19.