Imperium tries to win you over with a dozen Nazi cupcakes.
Imperium tries to win you over with a dozen Nazi cupcakes. “The frosting is a little messed up,” a blushing housewife tells undercover FBI agent Nate Foster, played by Daniel Radcliffe, as she proffers some sweets she’s ornamented with shaky sugar swastikas. It’s a humorous moment, but also emblematic of a film that, all in all, judges itself far more intelligent than it actually is. Imperium just found out that the world isn’t black and white, and it’s eager to fill you in.
Daniel Ragussis’ feature directorial debut takes on the victim mentality as its central theme. Agent Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette) directs Foster as he goes undercover to follow leads about possible terrorist activity within white supremacist groups. What he actually uncovers is hateful thinking among people who, surprise surprise, possess a few redeeming qualities.
Foster initially infiltrates a group of skinheads, which is good news for the audience because the stark coif replaces a dorky FBI bowl cut that would have been a task for Radcliffe to act around. Foster isn’t after hooligans, though. He’s after the big fish.
In a heavy handed attempt at topicality, Imperium opens with an FBI sting operation involving a radical Islamic terrorist. Foster finds the action morally dubious, expressing empathy for a suspect he sees as a victim. That’s why Agent Zamparo pegs him for her own operation. When Foster fails to find a white supremacist whose vitriolic talk is accompanied by an equally destructive walk, he comes to a breaking point. “I always felt like I could change the world. You know, I could right wrongs, fight injustice,” he explains to a neo-Nazi in twisted earnest. That moment of emotional honesty gets him access to the intel he was searching for. “Why do you think I picked you?” Agent Zamparo asks Foster. “I knew that you would understand them, and they’d understand you…Because when it comes down to it, there’s really only one essential ingredient to fascism: it’s victimhood.”
Dialogue like this is about all the character development that Foster gets. He’s an outsider, the film reminds us a few times in as many words. But it does little else to build that story. The bowl cut is really the most convincing evidence that Foster doesn’t fit in. While Radcliffe carries the film—and in and of himself is reason enough to watch Imperium—Ragussis under-utilizes the actor’s tremendous talent. The same is true with Toni Collette: she is relegated to a dark office, where she plays an outline of a washed up agent. It’s a delight to watch these two charismatic presences on screen, but it’s also a disappointment to see them stuck in such a sterile context.
Imperium has literary aspirations galore. These come through in historical montages; they are evident in tidy, symbolic or referential dialogue, and in the characters who are influenced by fascist texts. The film opens with a quote by Adolf Hitler: “Words build bridges into unexplored regions.” In a way, Imperium falls into the very trap it warns against—though with much less volatile consequences. The film’s intellectual posturing is the crutch which prevents it from achieving real emotional resonance. If you are absolutely jonesing for some sympathetic skinheads, try the raw performance by Edward Norton in American History X.