It’s no secret that Daniel Radcliffe has had a—well—eclectic post-Potter career. The former Boy Who Lived has played everything from a farting corpse in Swiss Army Man to Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings. But his latest project, writer-director Daniel Ragussis’ feature debut Imperium, shows Radcliffe in what might be his most unsettling role yet: hurling racial slurs and preaching about white supremacy.
To be fair, Radcliffe actually plays a bespectacled and academic FBI agent named Nate Foster, the kind of idealistic introvert who spends his nights listening to classic music alone in his apartment. His background is in studying and tracking Islamic terrorism, but it isn’t long before his ability to analyze and empathize with suspects attracts the attention of his superiors—particularly Toni Collette as a no-nonsense official named Angela Zamparo.
While the rest of the bureau is focused on terrorism that originates abroad, Zamparo devotes her attention to home-grown terror, and she’s convinced that an extremist white nationalist organization is gearing up for a global race war, beginning with a dirty bomb right here in Washington, D.C. So, she recruits the inexperienced Nate to shave his head and go undercover as a radical skinhead. It’s his job to memorize white nationalist literature and make enough of an impression with the low-level skinheads to get close to a radical conservative radio host named Dallas Wolf (Tracy Letts), the kind of blustery bald guy who spouts things like, “Diversity is a code word, and what it means is white genocide.”
The belligerent Wolf and the trigger-happy skinheads are disturbing, but perhaps the most unsettling scenes take place not in the Neo-Nazi clubs or the isolated bunkers but the ordinary, domestic scenes—like a backyard barbecue, where various member of “the movement” meet to talk shop. Hosted by the mild-mannered Gerry (Sam Trammell), these parties include housewives bearing swastika-adorned cupcakes and small children proudly showing off the treehouse they built to keep out other races. It’s easier to dismiss the cartoonish young skinheads, but it’s the suburban, seemingly educated white nationalists who are perhaps the most terrifying. (And in 2016’s political climate, they have a chilling relevancy.)
Imperium doesn’t have anything particularly innovative or new to say about what sparks domestic terrorism, and instead of diving into the psychology behind extremism, Ragussis doubles down on the shock factor, stitching together lots of frenzied montages of Nazi and Ku Klux Klan footage. Subtlety is not Imperium’s strength. But as a solid thriller, it’s far more successful, and Radcliffe is brilliant as the quick-on-his-feet agent. Whenever Nate faces a situation that could blow his cover—like when an acquaintance recognizes him at a white pride rally or when he tries to prevent his skinhead cohorts from attacking an interracial couple—you can see the gears turning in his head. The result is a tense, chilling thriller that suggests that the most dangerous extremists are not the ones marching in the streets, shouting racial slurs, but the ones hiding behind closed doors. B