Early press for writer-director Daniel Ragussis’ feature debut Imperium largely concentrated on one thing: the “holy shit” factor of Daniel Radcliffe as a white supremacist. And it is unsettling to see him spouting racial slurs, giving Nazi salutes, and wearing a white power T-shirt as undercover FBI agent Nate Foster. But don’t let the novelty of Radcliffe’s newest sharp right turn from his Harry Potter days—something he may never live down, no matter how hard he tries—distract you from the really unsettling part of this movie: Violent white supremacists are real, and they really do want to hurt people.
In the opening scenes of the film, Foster helps bust a would-be jihadist, the usual object of Americans’ fears about terrorism. But the arrest simply serves to underline the film’s core message, spoken by FBI veteran Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette): “Just because you’re not looking at something, doesn’t mean it’s not there.” The “it” is violence perpetrated by anti-Semitic, racist white extremist groups, whose coded rhetoric has inspired domestic terrorist acts like the Oklahoma City bombing. A former undercover agent now bound to a desk, Zamparo persuades Foster—a small, sensitive, bookish, wholly unlikely candidate—to go undercover and try to get information on a bombing plot she suspects is being fomented by ultra-right-wing radio host Dallas Wolf (Tracy Letts). After plowing through Zamparo’s reading list, he agrees.
Although it does take a few minutes to meditate on the victim mentality that drives the frustration that leads to hate, Imperium is less concerned with why people become white supremacists and more with the whos and the hows of the movement. The film serves as a bit of a field guide to hate groups: There are the jackbooted skinheads Foster joins up with initially, self-proclaimed “Aryan warriors” who threaten interracial couples in the street and aren’t nearly as tough as they think they are. Then there’s the militia group Aryan Alliance, slightly better organized, way better armed, and still not as tough as they think they are. Most sinister of all are the KKK and fellow travelers like gentleman racist Gerry Conway (Sam Trammell, in a chillingly pleasant performance), a vegetarian white-collar professional who uses his love of classical music to justify his belief in the inherent superiority of European culture.
Even compared to the pummeling quick-cut montages of racist imagery (Nazi rallies, cross burnings) that Ragussis inserts whenever he feels the audience needs a little provoking, the most disturbing scene in the film takes place in Conway’s suburban backyard, where he grills veggie burgers for Grand Wizards and paramilitary leaders as his children play and his wife serves swastika cupcakes in the background. (Unsurprisingly, they’re all sexists of the “a woman’s place is in the home” school as well.) Forget the pageantry of rallies and parades—the really scary things are being said and done behind closed doors, by perfectly nice-looking people, in perfectly nice-looking subdivisions.
All of these groups welcome Foster quickly and readily—a little too quickly and readily, in fact. Along with a few narrative conveniences, Imperium’s biggest weakness is in its timeline, which remains confusingly unclear up until the end of the film. From the pacing of the film, it seems as though Foster has gone from new recruit to close confidant of the movement’s leaders within the span of a few days; it defies credulity, even accounting for the fact that most extremists are too blinded by their hate to think critically about much of anything. About an hour in, Imperium begins to address the particular bit of cognitive dissonance that comes from these paranoid conspiracy theorists’ seemingly trusting nature, and becomes a more tense film for it. Radcliffe’s performance also ramps up toward the end of the movie, when the pressures of undercover life and his struggle to empathize with these people—his main asset as an undercover agent—really begin to weigh on him.
Imperium was written by Ragussis from a story by former FBI agent Michael German, who spent 15 years undercover with white supremacist groups before quitting the bureau in the early ’00s. That experience gives the film a certain authority that is its biggest asset, not entirely making up for its narrative shortcomings but leaving viewers with the disquieting feeling that we, as a nation, are afraid of the wrong things. German said as much in an editorial for The Washington Post in 2005, when he warned that, although their influences may be subtle, so-called “lone gunmen” are anything but. A decade later, in a political climate in which former KKK leaders are running for Congress and a major political party’s candidate for president openly interacts with white supremacists on social media, we’d be wise to listen to him.