Directed by Daniel Ragussis.
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Toni Collette, Tracy Letts, Burn Gorman, Sam Trammell, Nestor Carbonell, Chris Sullivan, Seth Numrich and Adam Meier.
Idealistic FBI agent Nate Foster goes undercover to take down a radical white supremacy terrorist group. The up-and-coming analyst must confront the challenge of sticking to a new identity while maintaining his real principles as he navigates the dangerous underworld of white supremacy.
When any debutant filmmaker tackles progressive and compelling subject matter in their introductory picture, there is reason to celebrate. Whether good, bad or indifferent, they have made a statement in the art form by showing their seriousness.
Daniel Ragussis’ first feature-length Imperium is such a work. Whilst extremely heavy-handed and consistently on-the-nose, he is at least attempting to project a narrative with weight and thematic importance, even if he cannot achieve it.
The film follows Daniel Radcliffe’s good-natured and largely undervalued FBI agent Nate who upon request from his enigmatic and unconventional peer Angela (Collette) is assigned to an undercover operation where he must infiltrate a group of radical white supremacists, of whom she believes are plotting a nuclear attack which greatly threatens Washington’s security.
Too frequently Imperium attempts to manipulate the spectator with intrusive montage sequences, laden with distorted news footage; hoping to give the moderately plausible story some earthy realism. Had this gimmick been used a single time, we wouldn’t batter an eyelid, but the validity of Ragussis and story developer Michael German’s narrative seemingly becomes dependant upon it.
Largely speaking this is another case in a common trend: great performance, mediocre movie. The formula seems to work as many average titles have somehow found their way to multiple Academy Awards nominations across the past few years. Key examples would be The Imitation Game and The Danish Girl – both have expert acting, but underwritten and often meandering prose.
Imperium and indeed the vast majority of those who populate it, is never as interesting, profound or powerful as Radcliffe’s central role. He delivers a deeply transformative and captivating screen-turn; one sculpted with physicality and rendered with nuance. Since his Hogwarts days, Radcliffe has ventured into deep, uncharted territories, and the benefits are universal. For someone of his age – still just 27 – he has carved a dense filmography filled with interesting, unpredictable titles. His role as Nate is yet another solid platform, and he remains a talent to keep a close eye on.
However with such an attention-grabbing role comes the inescapable downside: the environments and scenarios of this film almost bleed into non-existence and irrelevance because of his presence which is a biblical curse.
The racial text here straddles from the quite rightly infuriating to the downright idiotic. A central sequence involving a rally through the city streets fizzes with intensity as Nate and the group march in unison, pledging their allegiance to Neo-Nazism and bellowing “White Power”. It is a deeply disturbing but captivating moment which is enough to give a sense of urgency and realism without endlessly flashy news reels.
But just as something striking arrives, it is countered by something mindless. Regular intervals throughout see Nate ‘bonding’ with Trammell’s (True Blood) Gerry; the most domesticated, thoughtful, and charming racial-terrorist-maniac you could ever hope to meet…so alienating are these moments, you become completely separated from the drama and menace as they sit and drink Earl Grey whilst discussing 18th Century Russian literature. What should come across as darkly sobering – the fact that not all white supremacists are skinheads running around wrecking havoc – actually feels vapid and moronic.
It would be easy, and a bit lazy, to compare the film to fellow Neo-Nazi examinations like American History X and Romper Stomper, but the principal differences is that both of those pictures – whilst visceral and thematically repellent – understood the language of their world: the people, the landscapes, the cultures. Rather than feeling like political propaganda that repeatedly asked the audience to feel disgusted by the activity, they simply expected it, and that’s enough. Imperium feels the need to beat you violently over-the-head with subtext and manipulative messages, and that is unquestionably a cardinal sin.
Yet credit must be given to Ragussis from an aesthetic standpoint. For a debut picture, this is visually accomplished material. He makes fine use of the location shoots and is able to juxtapose minimal character moments with sprawling aerials and wide-angles with efficiency. Whilst the majority of his cast spurt inept and vacant expository dialogue, the manner in which he captures is impressive.
For every strong step forward Imperium makes, a further two backwards ensure the film remains in decline. A poorly realised story with an overbearing tone is somewhat elevated by Radcliffe’s fine work, but sadly that’s not enough to make Ragussis’ commentary on racial war, and his introduction to feature filmmaking all that memorable.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★