In the years since graduating from (or surviving) Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, “Harry Potter” star Daniel Radcliffe has shown a consistent and fiercely impressive desire to use his fame in order to follow his muse. And Radcliffe’s muse has led him to a number of comically dark places, letting the Brit actor’s willingness to forge his own gnarled path become a reliable talking point, rehashed and reinvigorated with every performance as a pariah who grows devil horns or a hunchbacked assistant to a mad scientist.
But “Imperium,” in which he plays a fresh-faced FBI recruit who goes deep undercover with a group of scheming neo-Nazis, is the first of Radcliffe’s post-Potter roles that isn’t delivered with a wink, the first that — if it went terribly awry — couldn’t be written off as an elaborate goof. As serious as sedition itself, the icon’s wholly believable turn in Daniel Ragussis’ intense feature directorial debut asks you to accept a different kind of Daniel Radcliffe right from the start, as it opens with him sporting an FBI cap, holding a gun and busting an act of terrorism in progress.
But Nate Foster isn’t exactly Jason Bourne, and Radcliffe is so right for the role in part because his casting refuses to let you confuse the character for a super-soldier. On the contrary, Nate is a bit of a nerd, a brainiac whose greatest asset to the bureau is his approachability and his ability to speak Arabic. He’s bold, he’s brash and — perhaps because of his obvious chance of moving up the food chain — he’s also constantly bullied. He’s good with people, except for the ones with whom he works.
So when a higher-up named Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette, strong in a thankless part) recruits him to infiltrate a local sect of white nationalists and stop them from unleashing some kind of attack on the capital, Nate isn’t entirely opposed to the idea. Angela tells the kid that undercover work is pretty much just people skills, and then she seals the offer with a veiled threat: “You’re focused on the Islamic guys, I get it. We all create a narrative based on what you think is important. You see what you want to see. But just because you’re not looking at something doesn’t mean it’s not there.” Terrorists, as the American media too often needs to be reminded, can come in every color, and a dirty bomb could go off in downtown D.C. because somebody wasn’t paying attention to certain shades.
Anyone who’s seen “The Departed” or “Donnie Brasco” can anticipate how things play out from there: Nate shaves his head, reinvents himself as an Iraq War vet, earns the respect of some hard-ass motherfuckers while racing to stay a step ahead of their suspicions, grows increasingly paranoid and begins to seem like he might be in a bit too deep.
But “Imperium,” which Ragussis directs with a steady hand even when his script cowers away from its most complex ideas and races to a forced conclusion, is too grounded in reality to fall victim to its clichés. Loosely based on the operations of ex-FBI agent Michael German, the film is defined by the authenticity of second-hand experience. Its ragtag collection of neo-Nazis bristle with the rage of a real cause, especially as the film begins to embarrass them by dismantling their ideology in order to expose the victimhood that fuels it. That indivisibly human sense of entitlement helps make even the film’s most loathsome characters feel like real people, and a well-chosen chosen array of supporting actors (such as Burn Gorman and “The Knick” alum Chris Sullivan) are there to seal the deal.
Best of all is the great Tracy Letts, playing a Rush Limbaugh-like AM radio host who broadcasts all the bullshit that his far-right listeners want to hear. Perfectly cast for his booming baritone voice and the same innate authority that made him such a good fit as the rigid dean in “Indignation,” Letts’ performance highlights how words have the unique power to transform raw anger into a false sense of purpose. That angle might seem a bit self-evident at a time when the Republican nominee for President of the United States is exploiting it on national television every night, but it helps underscore the clear and present danger that domestic threats can pose to a country so preoccupied with foreign ones.
It’s unfortunate that “Imperium” struggles to figure out what to do with all of its insight, even though so many details and lines of dialogue ring true (“It’s not the event that wakes people up,” someone tells Nate, “it’s the reaction to the event,” making it even harder to shake the Trump connection). The film is straightjacketed by its need to bend Nate’s journey into the stuff of a recognizable thriller, and everything about the attack that its hero uses to entrap the bad guys feels as fake as the rest of the movie does real.
Radcliffe’s performance ensures that the movie is engaging from start to finish — like Letts, the lynchpin of his portrayal is in the confidence of his voice — but Ragussis is afraid to follow his lead actor down the rabbit hole. Nate is a surprisingly fascinating protagonist, especially because he falls prey to the same sense of belonging that hate groups rely upon to recruit new members. He’s more accepted as a neo-Nazi than he ever was an F.B.I. agent, and that’s obviously seductive for such an impassioned young man. But “Imperium” refuses to lean into that, it lacks the courage to make viewers feel that seduction for themselves and tap into the righteous indignation that makes films like “American History X” and “La Haine” feel so dangerous.
But even if the film keeps him on too tight of a leash, Radcliffe manages to amplify both its bark and its bite. Nate Foster may not be his most impressive performance to date (that honor is still reserved for his turn in this summer’s “Swiss Army Man,” in which he established himself as the Laurence Olivier of playing dead), but it is his most promising, as it proves once and for all that he’s capable of making his own magic.
“Imperium” opens in theaters and on VOD on Friday, August 19.