“You seem pretty mature for a skinhead,” observes a white supremacist leader of Daniel Radcliffe in “Imperium,” in which the former Boy Who Lived plays a nebbishy, classical-music-loving FBI agent under deep cover in the neo-Nazi underworld. It’s a welcome acknowledgement of the unlikeliness of the casting, which turns out to be one of the film’s chief strengths. While maturing male actors from Ryan Gosling to Russell Crowe and Edward Norton have strapped on boots and braces as a sort of early proof of the toughness and danger of which they’re capable, Radcliffe’s performance asks how someone danger-averse and not-at-all tough would ingratiate himself into that dark milieu.
Unlike “The Believer,” “Romper Stomper,” or “American History X,” “Imperium” — directed and scripted by first-timer Daniel Ragussis — is not principally concerned with exploring the political or psychological dysfunction that drives young men to join violent hate-groups. Indeed, though based on a story by former FBI agent Michael German (who based much of the narrative on his own undercover experiences), “Imperium’s” depiction of the white-nationalist underground is ultimately background for a straightforward potboiler, and the film is at its best when it stays in that arena.
Radcliffe’s Nate Foster is a brilliant agent, but wet-behind-the-ears, disappointed to discover the jihadist terrorist suspect he’s been tracking for weeks is really just a low-level functionary. And yet his ability to empathize with the suspect during questioning attracts the attention of a superior, Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette, all gum-smacking insouciance), who suspects an extremist white nationalist group is trying to build a dirty bomb, and thinks an Alex Jones-styled, right-wing web-radio host (Tracy Letts) might have knowledge of it. Desperate to make his name in the agency, Nate agrees to become her mole.
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With nonexistent combat skills or field experience, Nate shaves his head and dives into white nationalist literature, learning all of the passwords and half-secret codes he needs to pass for a fellow traveler, and inventing attributes (a military past, a knowledge of chemistry) that would make him a particularly attractive recruit.
Once introduced into the scene, Nate encounters a range of distinct, tenuously collaborative groups. There are the skinheads, belligerent and none-too-bright; the far-better-organized Aryan Brotherhood, led by an imposing, militaristic taskmaster (Chris Sullivan); the goonish, almost dorky Klansmen; and most arrestingly, a polite, clean-living, wealthy family man named Gerry (Sam Trammell) whose extremist heart is concealed behind a seemingly reasonable, empathetic exterior. As knowledgeably sketched as these different groups are, director Ragussis leans a bit heavily on their own iconography in some early scenes, orchestrating montages of reactionary kitsch and propaganda that stall the film without revealing much about the characters.
In little time — perhaps a little too little — Nate becomes a sort of Zelig of the racist underworld, moving freely among factions and forging alliances as Angela needles him for actionable intel on terrorist activities. Despite a few overly convenient plot pivots, once the film gets moving, it tightens the screws and forces Nate to think on his feet, building a good deal of momentum. Never resorting to rote gunplay or secret-agent clichés, smartly written scenes concoct difficult dilemmas — how to stop one of his skinhead buddies from harassing an interracial couple without blowing his cover; how to avoid being recognized at a rally — with believable solutions.
It helps that Radcliffe effectively conveys the character’s intelligence, including the not-at-all simple trick of suggesting a racing mind without betraying hints of panic. But the real cast standout is Trammell, who eerily manages to put a happy face on some of the ugliest undercurrents of American life. More than the challenges of living a double life, the film suggests that the toughest task for an undercover counterterrorism agent is distinguishing the performative bluster from the active threats. And its idea that the quietest voices may be the most dangerous lands with unsettling resonance.