Directed by Daniel Ragussius
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Toni Collette, Tracy Letts, Chris Sullivan
Release 23rd September 2016
It takes a brave director to pick a subject like white supremacy for a debut feature. So respect to Daniel Ragussius, the director and writer of Imperium. And he may have had some extra luck with the film’s release dates, given some of the controversies surrounding the US presidential race and the much-discussed shift in attitudes in this country post-Brexit. The film looks like it has its finger on the pulse. Which makes it all the more disappointing that the end result is so routine.
Disappointed when a previous mission goes wrong, idealistic FBI operative Nate Thomas (Daniel Radcliffe) is easily persuaded by senior agent Zamporo (Toni Collette) to infiltrate a group of white supremacists. They’re suspected of building a dirty bomb and Nate’s target is their vocal leader, Dallas Wolf (Tracy Letts), who is hard to get close to. But that’s not his only challenge: preserving his own personality and beliefs proves increasingly difficult as he gets deeper inside the neo-Nazi underworld. And there’s the ever-present threat of being discovered …….
We’ve been here before, of course – Green Room, American History X. And going under cover in such company is a big ask for any agent. For somebody who’s ever so slightly damp behind the ears, completely aware that he’s no experience in the field and isn’t built for it, it’s terrifying. Which gives the Ragussius more to play with than usual, putting the most unlikely of infiltrators right into the middle of the hornet’s nest. Much has been made of Radcliffe’s appearance for the film, a radical departure from his usual image, and we see him shaving his head in readiness. It’s another instance of him choosing roles that both stretch him as an actor and move him further away from the part he’s still most associated with.
Nate’s lack of physical presence is continually emphasised by the hulks around him, especially Blackwell (Chris Sullivan), all braces, boots, bald head and bushy beard. One of the others observes that he’s “pretty mature for a skinhead” and, indeed, he is. But somehow he manages to convince them he’s for real. Not that he isn’t tested, but an invaluable knack for quick thinking means he can talk himself out of sticky situations and make the supremacists look stupid into the bargain. But family man Gerry (Sam Trammell) is a completely different proposition, a quietly spoken professional with the mandatory wife and two children. Not at all the usual image of a white supremacist.
There are chinks in Nate’s armour, of course. His name, for one. Only Blackwell ever addresses him by his full name of Nathan and, given the groups’ Nazi tendencies, it doesn’t dawn on anybody that it’s Jewish. Strange when you think that he’s taken to task for wearing Levi jeans. There are times when it looks like he’s going to be unmasked – Blackwell’s cat and mouse questioning gets uncomfortably close – so we’re being prepared for something sweatily tense. But it doesn’t deliver. Somewhere along the line, the script participated in the Ice Bucket Challenge, because the suspense simply isn’t there. It’s not the fault of Radcliffe or, indeed, any of the cast, who do what they can with what they’re given. It’s all to do with the direction and the script, which gives us something that should be taut and ends up being flabby. You feel uncomfortable at the attitudes and language on display, but that’s all.
Radcliffe, although not on top form, is credible in the role, but Toni Collette, who is a terrific actress, isn’t given much of a chance to be other than hard-arsed and gum chewing. There’s richer pickings among the supporting characters: Chris Sullivan as the intimidating Blackwell and Tracy Letts as the man with all the plausible sounding words but whose face betrays nothing but hate. Most impressive of all is Trammell as Gerry, the personification of the banality of evil. Given that he’s the most educated of all the supremacists, the question as to how and why he swallowed their doctrine is a mystery – and stays that way.
Imperium promises much in terms of suspense, but delivers very little on that front. The overall feeling you get at the end is decidedly flat.
Imperium is released in cinemas today and was reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 22 September.