As it is — a perfectly acceptable three-act informant flick, with a heavy dash of American History X — Imperium punches out strong thrills and a dose of moral superiority to audiences. In 2016, white nationalism is more relevant than it has been in decades, and this Daniel Radcliffe vehicle suits up nicely as the box-office accompaniment to America’s Nov. 8 election that many are framing as a referendum on racism. But ultlimately, Imperium dances around potentially fascinating plotlines while following hackneyed copper-flick tropes to the letter, leaving an uneven impression.
The best example of this tendency comes straight the credits, when we’re introduced to Nate (Radcliffe) as a nervous wreck, conflicted over the arrest of a young Somali-American who appears to be a victim of FBI entrapment. Immediately afterward, Nate’s boss, upon hearing that a few containers of radioactive material are unaccounted for, displays a map of Muslim communities in the D.C. area as a suggestion for agents. However, the film doesn’t wrestle with today’s dual realities of right-wing and Islamic extremism. Instead, it cuts straightaway to a classic controller-field agent relationship, where an appropriately harried-looking Radcliffe is dumped into the world of Northern Virginia skinheads. He’s periodically mentored by a rogue higher-up, played by Toni Collette, and the film rolls on from there in a fairly predictable fashion.
One of the strengths of Imperium is the lineup of different neo-Nazi varieties it rolls out for viewers. There’s the garden-variety skinhead, with his hardcore punk, beer and suspenders; the talk-radio racist; the end-is-neigh, militarized prepper; and, most unnerving of all, the well-coiffed suburban Goebbels, a lover of Brahms, veggie burgers, and the description “mud people.”
But this macabre tour of American hatred means there’s too little time spent with each of the characters, and when director Daniel Ragussis reaches for moments of empathy &mash; hey, these guys are people too! — it falls flat, given how little the viewer learns about each of them. What works better is the film’s penchant for focusing on the everyday concerns of white nationalists. Life isn’t really all about dirty bombs and arms stockpiles. Sometimes, you’ve got to worry about baking swastika cupcakes and setting up youth group parties for Hitler’s birthday.
Imperium’s grim plotline is complemented by a palette heavy on the grey, brown, and army green. Some flash of color over the hour and 49 minute runtime would be welcome, but when it comes, it’s in the form of montages of burning crosses, Hitler’s face, and scary headlines that crop up around almost every pivotal moment. They’re a bit of a ham-handed effort at provoking fear, but like the rest of Imperium, they get the job done.