After a summer of mind-numbing blockbusters that felt more like cruel and unusual punishment than mass-market entertainment, I found myself in need of some movies with heartier goals—movies that don’t ask us to check our brains at the door and still wind up insulting all intelligence. I wanted to see the polar opposite of a crowd-pleaser: a movie that dives somewhere deep, dark and depressing. So what better film to turn to than a thriller about an FBI agent trying to infiltrate a group of white supremacists?
“Imperium” is a difficult film, and I’m not just talking about its subject matter. The movie suffers from trying to exist as both a thriller and cautionary tale about the threat of domestic terrorism. It’s kind of like “Point Break,” but instead of rogue surfers, it’s a bunch of skinheads yelling “white power.” Instead of Gary Busey as the sage-like agent and mentor, we get Toni Collette. Instead of super bro-tacular Keanu Reeves, we get …
That’s right, kids. Everyone’s favorite wonderful wizard is trying to broaden his range by appearing in a grim and gritty thriller. Think of it as “Harry Potter and the Order of the Grand Dragon.” Nate Parker (Radcliffe) is a promising young agent, working to thwart terror threats infiltrating our country. Profiling and identifying foreign threats. He’s approached by a passionate agent (Collette) who believes there are more dangerous threats from our own citizens, laying out a brutal history of white supremacists who have been responsible for horrific acts of death and destruction.
Once Nate is convinced to take on the case, he begins the process of shaving his head, building his background, and getting into the mindset of the racist rabble-rousers populating these fringe groups. He starts low on the totem pole and befriends a group of skinhead thugs who are more interested in venting their impotent rage and spouting conspiracy theories about Levi’s Jeans and UPC codes than developing terrorist attacks. Nate is able to talk his way into some other affiliations, including a militant group of armed white nationalists and an old-fashioned, hood-wearing faction of the KKK.
There’s some genuinely disconcerting things happening in “Imperium”—the ease to which people spout hate-filled nonsense and chant “white power” like they’re casually saying “hello.” “Imperium” rides a very difficult line between being an examination of the actionable racist culture that grips a vocal minority of our society and being a run-of-the-mill mystery/thriller, as Nate tries to figure out if any of these random nutjobs is actually planning to detonate a dirty bomb in the general vicinity of Washington, D.C.
“Imperium” is by no means a bad movie, but it tries too hard to achieve both goals. It was to be something wholly entertaining and as relevant examination of what motivates these extremists into violent action. It never really achieves either. Daniel Radcliffe gives his best to the lead role, but he feels way out of his depth. He’s a small, cerebral, very slight screen presence. He seems like an odd choice to go on this assignment, something a number of other characters bring up. Early on, he’s pegged as being a mole by one of his skinhead thugs, and yet everyone else steps up and defends him for unexplainable reasons. “I feel like I can trust you,” says one. Good instincts there, Grand Dragon.
The movie’s biggest failing is how easily Nate manages to move from one supremacist group to another. It seems so obvious that this guy is a mole. I kept hearing Austin Powers in “Goldmember” in my head, when Mike Myers screams “mole!” at Fred Savage every time he sees his face.
Somehow, though, the movie isn’t a total loss. Every so often it finds a nice subtle groove and manages to be an interesting examination of this ugly side of our society. And every so often, there are moments of compelling drama; however, it feels like a missed opportunity.
I kept thinking back to the two best examples of examining white supremacy: Edward Norton in “American History X” and Dave Chappelle’s Clayton Bigsby sketch. There’s very few lessons to learn here, other than white supremacists and militants are a frightening lot. “Imperium” doesn’t really bring anything new to the table, but it’s an admirable effort.