Imperium: Daniel Radcliff Strikes a Chord in Daniel Ragussis Timely Thriller

imperium_posterBritish actor Daniel Radcliffe continues to improve as a dramatic actor, as he showed earlier this summer in Swiss Army Man, and now comes Imperium, which features his most fully realized performance to date.

Imperium opens in theaters and on VOD on August 19.

In Daniel Ragussis’ intense feature directorial debut, Radcliffe is well cast as Nate Foster, a new FBI recruit who goes undercover with a group of neo-Nazis. In the first scene, sporting an FBI cap, and holding a gun, he is engaged in busting an act of terrorism.

Thematically, Imperium bears some resemblance to American History X, which Tony Kaye directed and New Line released two decades ago, with Edward Norton as a neo-Nazi and Edward Furlong as his younger and impressionable brother. And it’s also a companion piece–a more up-to-date chronicle– to The Believer, the Sundance indie that made Ryan Gosling a star.


Early one, Nate comes across as a smart, bold, and brash nerd, who knows his merits—among other skills, he speaks fluent Arabic. Recognizing his value, top exec Angela Zamaro (Toni Collette) recruits him to infiltrate a sect of white supremacists and stop them from attacking the Capital.

Angela tells him that undercover work needs special communication skills, and extra alertness: “You see what you want to see. Just because you’re not looking at something doesn’t mean it’s not there.”  Angela has a point: These days, terrorists don’t necessarily look like villains–they come in every shape and size, and a bomb could go off in D.C. because somebody wasn’t paying enough attention.

Following the usual procedures, Nate transforms himself, he shaves his head, and reinvents himself as an Iraq War vet. But while trying to stay ahead of the other members’ suspicions, he also grows increasingly paranoid and his conduct is marked by a new set of anxieties.

The tale is loosely based on the experience of ex-FBI agent Michael German—Ragussis presents his scenario as inspired by true events, and obviously he has taken liberties with the source material.

imperium_1Despite shortcomings in the writing, Imperium benefits from its timely concerns, grounded in what has unfortunately become our routine reality—daily reports of terrorist attacks all over the world as presented by the mass media.

It’s to the director’s credit that the film’s most loathsome characters are given human voice and come across as real people due to the well-chosen ensemble of supporting actors, including Burn Gorman and Chris Sullivan.

Playwright-actor Tracy Letts, who stole every scene he was in with Lerman in Indignation (directed by James Schamus), shines again here as a right-wing radio host who fuels his listeners, using his authorial voice and gravitas, by unleashing raw anger.

The film underscores the dangers that domestic threats can pose, that terrorist attacks can happen right here, not just in foreign countries such as France and Belgium and Turkey.

Many scenes ring true and will touch a chord with the public due to their social relevancy.  “It’s not the event that wakes people up,” Nate is told, “it’s how we react to he event,” and I wish the writer went deeper than he does in exploring this idea, which is literally torn off the media headlines. His goal is to explore the political or psychological motivations that drive young men to join violent hate-groups, but the screenplay is too shallow and opts for a melodramatic potboiler rather than a serious expose (especially in the film’s second half).

Though small-scale and independently made, Imperium is marred by turning Nate’s individualistic journey and particular context into a shapelier if too recognizable thriller.  For example, the attack that Nate uses to entrap the bad guys feels too familiar—too generic.

Even so, Nate makes for an intriguing hero, especially as played by Daniel Radcliff, precisely because he demonstrates the risks of falling prey to the same need of belonging that hate groups rely upon when they recruit their new members, usually young, insecure guys searching for cause and identity. Ironically, Nate is more socially accepted as a neo-Nazi than he was an F.B.I. agent; early on, there are scenes in which he is bullied by his mates.

Lacking the more obvious charisma and natural heroic stature of actors such as Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, and Matt Damon, Radcliff gives a firm, commanding performance, demonstrating that he can carry such a film on his shoulders.