Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Toni Collette, Tracy Letts,
Most of the time I can spot a first time feature film director without looking. More times than not, those directors come from short films. The reason I can spot this is the simplicity in the narrative and that’s what Imperium drowns in. Directors like Jeff Nichols make small budget films feel humongous in scope on a regular basis. Daniel Radcliffe’s performance is the strongest element to Imperium, it’s bigger than the films itself. However, despite his performance, Imperium never made me feel like I was in an FBI office, an interrogation room, a skin head property, etc. The film banks all its suspense on the undercover plot theme, but unlike The Departed, it isn’t enough. Perhaps the most disappointing element to Imperium is Toni Collette, an actress I simply adore, but her gum chomping senior agent role is phoned in and distracting.
Green FBI agent Nate Foster (Radcliffe) wants to be involved in a case that matters, that will change things. He is recruited by senior agent Angela Zamparo (Collette) to go undercover with a dangerous group of local Virginia skinheads who have terrorist ties. He must shave his head, learn the language and philosophy of the group that lives to support white power. Once vetted, Nate quickly becomes popular and finds favor in high ranking officials due to his intelligence. His mission is to tie their public leader Dallas Wolf (Letts) to dangerous explosives in order for the Bureau to make an arrest. The most surprising person Nate encounters is Gerry Conway (Sam Trammell) a family man with a wife and kids who invites the group over for veggie burger cookouts and swastika cupcakes.
Imperium isn’t restricted to anything except a small budget, but cannot conjure authentic suspense.
When Zamparo wants to teach Nate something, she pulls out a book, which means ‘I read it in there, so believe me’. The film does the same thing, even the reason for sending Nate undercover seems very thin as the FBI director (Nestor Carbonell) points out. Writer/director Daniel Ragussis really wants to tell a story about am impressionable agent being sent into the worst of circles, but doesn’t create the most believable terms to get him there. Radcliffe’s performance keeps the film moving and interesting for two reasons. He is a very talented performer who has no limits as an artist (i.e. Swiss Army Man, Kill Your Darlings). The audience is always sympathetic to Radcliffe (except maybe in his throw away performance in Now You See Me 2) and he was appropriately cast here.
It’s everything else that doesn’t work. There are many films with talented directors and screenwriters than can create suspense in phone booths, panic rooms or even shooting an entire movie in a vehicle. Imperium isn’t restricted to anything except a small budget, but cannot conjure authentic suspense. There is a near fight scene in the parking lot of a liquor store and a skinhead march gone wrong, other than that the film fails the suspense it aims for. The ending is anticlimactic just like the entire plot. Every scene Collette has with Radcliffe, the Oscar nominated actress portrays a difference version of Zamparo, yet always pounding away at that gum. The ambition here is to be commended, Radcliffe’s performance even admired, but this small film never becomes a wholly interesting feature film.
Radcliffe is the only reason to see it.