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For all its virtues as a brilliantly executed B-movie genre exercise, there was also a shallowness at the heart of Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room—a sense that its writer/director had no interest in exploring the psychologies of either its punk-rocker heroes or its neo-Nazi villains beyond using them as grist for inventive and increasingly over-the-top suspense scenarios. In that sense, Imperium offers a corrective of sorts to Saulnier’s film: a thriller that actually tries to get underneath the skin of its neo-Nazi villains rather than simply using them as easy antagonists.

Which is not to say that Daniel Ragussis’ film—his first feature—is the modern-day cop-movie equivalent of American History X, by any means. The main character of Imperium—up-and-coming FBI agent Nate Foster (Daniel Radcliffe)—is still very much on the side of angels, so to speak. But when he agrees to pose as a neo-Nazi skinhead in order to infiltrate what older fellow FBI agent Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette) suspects is a white-supremacist terrorist group, Ragussis’ film offers a more disturbing view of these radicals as not that much different from you or me: ordinary working-class Americans who are simply driven, whether through personal experiences or unquestioned parental teachings, by an ideology that most people would consider appalling.

Though Ragussis hardly goes so far as to suggest the legitimacy of the views the neo-Nazis in the film openly espouse, Nate turns out to be the ideal audience surrogate with which to bear witness to these folk. His compassionate way with a suspect Islamic terrorist in the film’s opening stages—treating him as a fellow human being during an interrogation rather than hassling and threatening him like the other FBI agents do—is precisely what appeals to Angela, who sees in Nate a knack for forging personal connections that would be valuable in getting white supremacists to open up to him. And open up they do, in ways that feel more chilling and incendiary than any of the genre pyrotechnics in Green Room.

Naturally, Nate finds himself forced to act in ways that horrify him in order to maintain his cover, including calling a black friend who recognizes him in a white-pride march a racial epithet, and making threatening gestures toward an interracial couple making out on the street. More interesting than those expected moral compromises, though, are the social divisions and character contrasts that he discovers among the neo-Nazis he encounters. His entry point into this underworld is a group of hotheaded younger skinheads who certainly talk a big game, lashing out at people they don’t like with abandon. They’re nothing, however, compared to the public figure they all seem to idolize: Dallas Wolf (Tracy Letts, as oily in his authoritative demeanor as he was in Indignation recently), who spouts off hateful and paranoid rhetoric on popular podcasts but who, when confronted by the authorities, hides behind a cowardly “I’m an entertainer” rationale.

The most intriguing, and thus insidious, of the white supremacists Nate encounters, however, is Gerry Conway (Sam Trammell), a seemingly harmless family man who turns out to be the undercover FBI agent’s most important contact. Certainly, Gerry is the one Nate connects with the most, personality-wise: both soft-spoken, thoughtful and introverted, with a shared love of classical music to bring them together. Perhaps it’s inevitable that this quiet, intelligent fellow turns out to be hiding an even deeper revolutionary streak than the younger posers and entertainers in the movement—the only one willing to put his beliefs into action. This character thus poses Imperium’s most potent challenge to Nate’s, and the audience’s, sympathies: a character we can’t help but be drawn to even as, intellectually, we realize how dangerous he is.

Through it all, Imperium is held together by Daniel Radcliffe’s performance, yet another noteworthy example of the former Harry Potter tapping into a previously unexplored aspect of his talent, to persuasive ends. Radcliffe still has something of a boyish quality to him, and if this was intuitively perfect for playing a talking corpse learning about life in Swiss Army Man earlier this year, at the outset it sounds counterintuitive for an FBI agent. Thankfully, he’s able to compensate with convincing projections of quick, on-his-toes thinking in times of crisis. All by himself, he brings heft to the film’s other major thematic thread: its depiction of an idealistic young man gaining a dawning awareness of real-world emotional and moral complexities.

Director: Daniel Ragussis
Writer: Daniel Ragussis
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Toni Collette, Tracy Letts, Sam Trammell, Nestor Carbonell, Chris Sullivan
Release Date: Aug. 19, 2016

Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist, and the Village Voice in addition to Paste. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine and former editor-in-chief of In Review Online. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.