The Movie Waffler New Release Review - IMPERIUM | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - IMPERIUM

A bookish FBI agent goes undercover with a group of white supremacists.

Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Daniel Ragussis 

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Toni Collette, Tracy Letts, Sam Trammell, Nestor Carbonell, Chris Sullivan, Devin Druid

A little more time examining the bread and butter world of white supremacists would have been appreciated - how does an undercover agent do his grocery shopping when he's sporting a shaved head and a swastika tattoo? - but as a thriller, Imperium is a largely engrossing watch.

Cinematic stories of Nazi infiltration are nothing new, yet curiously they've tended to feature female protagonists - Ingrid Bergman (Notorious), Debra Winger (Betrayed), Carice Van Houten (Black Book) - who usually fall romantically for the male figure they've been assigned to take down. Similarly, stories of male agents going undercover regularly feature an element of bromance (Johnny Depp befriending Al Pacino's likeable mobster in Donnie Brasco), with the protagonists often getting a little too caught up in their work (Reece Dinsdale embracing the dubious thrills of football hooliganism in I.D.).

Imperium is yet another undercover infiltration plotline, but this one offers something different; its protagonist, bookish FBI agent Nate Foster (Daniel Radcliffe), maintains his composure throughout, never coming remotely close to embracing the cause of the white supremacist group he finds himself embedded in, nor does he develop anything approaching a genuine friendship with any of the figures he encounters, despite their best efforts to win him over.

While Nate's background is never mentioned directly, Foster is an Americanised version of the Jewish surname Forster, and of course Radcliffe is a Jewish actor, which adds an extra element to his composure and determination to take down this group.

That determination extends into the murky area of entrapment. The film opens with a scene that details the culmination of Nathan's previous assignment to arrest a would-be Jihadist, a young man who has been led to believe he's been supplied with the materials to detonate a bomb in downtown Washington D.C. It's a setup however; he's been manipulated by the FBI all along. This leads Nathan to criticise the bureau's suspect tactic of creating 'terrorists' simply to have someone to arrest, yet as he struggles to find any real evidence that the various white supremacists pose any physical threat beyond hate speech, Nathan begins to adopt this approach himself.

Along the way, Nathan, an expert in drawing people into his confidence, finds himself rising through the ranks of the white supremacy movement. He begins by befriending a gang of young skinheads, who seem more interested in getting drunk and starting street brawls than advancing the cause of their race. Then there's Andrew Blackwell (Chris Sullivan), the leader of a group called Aryan Alliance, who combine their racial superiority beliefs with those of Christian fundamentalism, but seem pretty amateur when it comes to putting together a real world revolution. Nathan finds the most explicit threat in the serene surroundings of the suburban home of Gerry Conway (Sam Trammell), a quiet spoken middle class intellectual who throws barbecue parties attended by an odd mix of Nazis, Klansmen and Soccer Moms.

Save for the skin/knuckleheads on the ground level, Imperium steadfastly refuses to paint any of its antagonists as cartoon villains. Blackwell and Conway seem like the sort of affable men whose company you might enjoy so long as you avoid the subjects of politics or religion. What makes them dangerous is how casually they believe they're in the right, and how easily manipulated they are by Nathan's coercion to push them over the line into full blown terrorism.

Radcliffe has been on a quest to distance himself from Harry Potter ever since that franchise ended, and while there have been some missteps along the way, he finally seems to have shed that cloak. He's excellent here, thoroughly convincing in what is essentially two roles, the timid FBI agent and the embittered racist.

A little more time examining the bread and butter world of white supremacists would have been appreciated - how does an undercover agent do his grocery shopping when he's sporting a shaved head and a swastika tattoo? - but as a thriller, Imperium is a largely engrossing watch.

Imperium is in cinemas September 23rd.