Directed by: Daniel Ragussis
Premise: An FBI agent (Daniel Radcliffe) goes undercover in the white supremacist subculture. He encounters rumors of an impending terrorist attack planned by one of several intersecting organizations and he must discover if the rumors are true and who is behind the attack.
What Works: Over the past decade, the white supremacist movement has stepped away from the periphery of the culture. The number of groups has increased as has the violence perpetuated by them. That makes the 2016 film Imperium a strikingly relevant motion picture as it follows an FBI agent into the white supremacist subculture. The undercover story is a fairly popular scenario in crime movies and it has been done before in pictures like Donnie Brasco and The Departed. But Imperium distinguishes itself from other undercover pictures and the film is an impressive first feature from director Daniel Ragussis. What this picture does so brilliantly is to create a vivid sense of danger as an FBI agent enters into white supremacist society. Intimidation and alpha male behavior is inherently frightening and the film pairs that with a portrayal of fanaticism that is violent in its intensity and devotion. Imperium succeeds by creating that fanatically hostile environment and then placing actor Daniel Radcliffe into it. Radcliffe is cast as the agent and he is not the obvious choice for this kind of part but that’s partly why he’s so good in it. Radcliffe has as slight frame and an intelligent demeanor and those qualities contrast with the people around him, putting the FBI agent in a vulnerable position that’s made more precarious by his deceit. One of the most impressive aspects of Imperium is its nuanced portrayal of the white supremacist subculture. There is a tendency by mainstream society to dismiss members of this subculture as crazy idiots or to view them as a monolith. While the ideology is of course poisonous and wrong, Imperium shows the gradation within the subculture and the hostility between different factions. In that respect, Imperium does a few interesting things. It strikes a balance between empathizing with the members of the neo-Nazi subculture without condoning their ideology or behaviors. There is a very interesting moment in which a white supremacist parade is interrupted by a violent counter protest. We also meet leaders who appear much more civilized and their cool and calm demeanor is misleadingly disarming. The way the filmmakers manipulate the audience’s sentiments is very interesting and a bit subversive.
What Doesn’t: Imperium is a gripping undercover procedural but the film would have benefitted from deeper characterization, especially of its protagonist. Daniel Radcliffe’s character does not seem to have a life outside of his job or his undercover work. In a way, the moviemakers avoid the clichés of the undercover genre. In a lot of these kinds of movies the agent struggles to separate his real life from his undercover identity with the two inevitably bleeding into each other. Imperium doesn’t give in to that cliché but it also does not create a clear contrast between who Radcliffe’s character really is and the person he is pretending to be. There are some hints of that, as the agent encounters an African American friend from his real life while marching with the white supremacists. He has to respond in a racist way to this companion but the film does not return to this relationship or the social consequences of going undercover. Imperium deserves credit for showing the nuance within the white supremacist movement but what the film does not explore is the attraction of these groups and why young white men get involved with them in the first place. Had the filmmakers done that they could have taken the conflict and the themes of the film to another, more subversive, level.
DVD extras: Commentary track, featurettes, interviews, and a trailer.
Bottom Line: Imperium is a smart and suspenseful thriller. The movie is an effective undercover story that manages to evade some of the clichés of the genre. It’s also a relevant movie for this particular moment, raising alarm about a troubling movement in our midst.
Episode: #636 (February 26, 2017)