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Imperium review: scratches the surface
September 22, 2016
Given the timing of its release, a film about an FBI agent infiltrating a white supremacist group seems almost redundant. With countries on high terror alert and Donald Trump drumming up support by spurting thinly veiled hate speech, it wouldn’t be hard to produce a similar screenplay with a news bulletin and a few carefully selected Twitter feeds. Despite this, Imperium, the first feature from director Daniel Ragussis, would be quite a thriller – if it had just given one theme more detail, instead of trying to cover so much ground.
The film begins with nerdy FBI agent Nate Foster (Daniel Radcliffe) thwarting an Islamic extremist terror attack at the last minute. Despite being mocked by most of his colleagues, Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette) spots something in him which could be valuable to her – the ability to empathise with those he is trying to bust. She approaches him to go undercover as a white supremacist and expose a plot to set off a dirty bomb – pointing out to Nate that perhaps the real threat isn’t always where people are looking. After some convincing, Nate shaves his head and infiltrates a hate group, with the aim of getting close to outspoken radio personality, Dallas Wolf (Tracy Letts), who is suspected to have knowledge of the potential plot.
From the start, Ragussis doesn’t seem sure which aspect of going undercover and white supremacy he intended to focus on. There are nods to American History X, but Imperium lacks any emotional depth, and there are also clear references to The Departed, but it doesn’t try particularly hard to pick apart any psychological issues involved in adopting another identity. Despite this, an ‘I smell a rat’ conversation when Nate is trapped in his own car is the tensest moment of the film by a long shot. Radcliffe steps up to the task in hand fairly well for an ex-wizard, but although his over-keen FBI agent is convincing, his white supremacist alter ego isn’t. Whether it is Radcliffe or Nate who is at fault here is unclear.
Brief flashes of humour intending to expose the neo-Nazis as mere idiots highlight another of the film’s strands, the link between fascism and victimhood. It is this idea of overcoming victimhood with some sort of notable deed that leads us back to the trope of “meaningful action” and man’s need to leave an impression, introduced already with Nate’s desperation to prove himself to his colleagues. The film’s denouement is predictable, and the fact the entire thing manages to run from start to finish without anything remarkable happening seems a shame, given the scope of the subject matter. This isn’t to say Imperium isn’t worth watching – but it would be much more affecting if it actually broke the surface of any one of the aspects of fascism, identity and disillusion that it scratches, while adding a bit more excitement.
Words by Imogen Robinson