Daniel Radcliffe has arrived. After a surprisingly moving performance as a farting corpse in Swiss Army Man earlier this year, the young man previously known as Harry Potter to the majority of the world has delivered another memorable turn in Daniel Ragussis’ Imperium. It’s a familiar story about racism and the hate it breeds, but thanks to a strong cast and a unique approach the film from Ragussis and co-writer Michael German finds new ground ripe with an almost constant sense of tension.
Radcliffe is Nate Foster, an intelligent FBI agent who is recruited by a superior (Toni Collette) to join the ranks of a radical white supremacy terrorist group. In order to do this Nate must not only learn to see the world through their eyes, but also maintain his secret identity in the face of a very aggressive group that will likely kill him if they discover the truth. Nate is tasked with learning whether or not the group has plans to spark a modern race war, and if so he must find a way to diffuse the situation before lives are lost.
Unlike many films that attempt to tackle racism and white supremacy groups through violent encounters and criminal conduct, Imperium approaches the world in such a way as to attempt educating viewers on why certain people feel moved to participate in these organizations. Nate’s knowledge of these groups prior to his undercover work is essentially that of any average person, which allows viewers to feel as if they are a part of his journey when it finally begins. Ragussis and German never attempt to convince you that hate groups are right, but they do work to destroy the stereotypes surrounding how individuals who adhere to the beliefs of those groups present themselves. The classic skinheads are present, but so are people who would disappear in a crowd. There are teachers, engineers, and a wide variety of seemingly average Caucasians filling the ranks, and that reveal to the audience is enough to send shivers down your spine.
As Nate dives deeper and deeper into the world of the Aryan Brotherhood he discovers that even the most vile actions are inspired by one simple feeling: Fear. These gang members (which I use loosely because terms like ‘cult’ and ‘misguided activists’ could be used as well) fear a world where they do not see non-Jewish Caucasians in positions of power. They believe abortion and gay marriage threatens white culture, as does seemingly innocuous things like wearing a pair of Levis jeans, and because of this they feel compelled to take action. Nate does his best to steer those on the fence toward a better perspective, but only to the extent he can do so without blowing his own cover. The rest are hopeless, or so they seem, and they are very suspicious of newcomers like Nate.
What helps Imperium stand out from most undercover thrillers is the palpable tension in nearly every moment following Nate’s initial induction into the world of white supremacy. He must always remain calm and attentive, making sure to blend in without ever really standing out. This responsibility would be difficult for anyone, as would the duty to convey the mix of emotions such actions can stir, but Radcliffe more than rises to the occasion. Collette performs admirably as well, but her presence in the meat of the film is purposefully minimal.
Though the finale may leave some wishing the payoff was a bit greater, Imperium serves as a pitch perfect exercise in sustaining tension over the course of its 105-minute runtime. I cannot imagine a world where anyone sees this film and performance Radcliffe delivers without thinking he has finally separated himself from the young adult franchise that first brought him into homes and cinemas around the globe. Imperium is his best opportunity to date to showcase the actor he has become, and thankfully his performance is accompanied by a truly compelling script that weaves a powerful story about that evil that hides in plain sight that is not easy to shake.