For certain young actors who made their name in wildly popular franchises, there’s a huge challenge to forge a career away from those series. Since hanging up his wand back in 2011, Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe has opted to take on a diverse selection of films, ranging from romcoms to horrors to whatever Horns was supposed to be. They haven’t all worked out but it’s been interesting to see Radcliffe avoid the typical movie star path to do his own thing, and his latest effort – Daniel Ragussis’ Imperium – is his best performance to date.
Radcliffe stars as Nate Foster, a hot shot FBI agent looking to climb the ladder at the bureau. Nate is more of a pencil pusher than a field agent but in the eyes of his superior Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette), his intellect and people skills make him an ideal undercover agent. She has her eye on a white supremacist radio host named Dallas Wolf (Tracy Letts) who she believes is involved in plotting a domestic terrorist attack. It’s up to Nate – sporting a freshly shorn head and an Iraq war backstory – to infiltrate a white supremacist group and get close to Wolf.
From there, a fairly standard undercover plot kicks in, complete with the requisite near misses, covert meetings and reluctant violence that goes along with it. It’s fairly well-worn territory and while films like Donnie Brasco and The Departed have done it better, debut writer-director Ragussis takes a low-key approach that feels more grounded, even if it is less exciting. Nate never finds himself sympathising with his targets, there’s no seedy love affair and no family at home; instead Nate ingratiates himself with a low-rent group of skinheads long enough to get introductions to the big boys. He systematically works his way up the ladder until he eventually uncovers a well-organised and fiercely motivated network of neo-Nazis that leads him all the way to the sunny suburbs, where staunch supremacists are already passing on their rhetoric to their young children.
The groups that Nate infiltrates are frightening for sure but Ragussis establishes their cause and all of the rage that fuels it, bringing a chilling level of authenticity to them. Other than one of Nate’s first cohorts, these aren’t violent yobs picking on people in the street; they’re far more intelligent and organised than that, and Nate’s own level-headed approach makes it easy for him to climb the ranks. What’s lacking however is any sense that Nate is becoming attached to his undercover life or being seduced by the comradery of these groups. The script touches on Nate’s past – broken home, moved around a lot, bullied at school – and it’s clear he’s not ‘one of the guys’ at the FBI, but there’s no notion that he’s starting to feel a sense of belonging with his Nazi friends.
In his first effort behind the camera, Ragussis has constructed a solid and steadily paced drama that musters some scenes of real tension, even if they do feel familiar from other undercover stories. He sews the seeds of suspicion in many scenes, building up a sense of paranoia that leads to a few sweaty-palm moments any time Nate winds up in a situation he can’t easily get out of. The standout is a crackling one-on-one negotiation scene as Nate tries to forge a deal with Wolf, who’s agenda might not be quite what it seems.
Elevating the solid-if-unspectacular material is Radcliffe, delivering his best performance in a role that, on paper, he might’ve seemed totally wrong for. But Radcliffe sinks into the role perfectly, proving utterly convincing as a man having to hold it together while he essentially lives two lives. It’s a performance like we’ve never seen from Radcliffe: commanding, assured and one that would be a star-making turn for someone lesser known. Escaping the shadow of something as big as Harry Potter is never easy but Radcliffe’s bold choices have put him on the right path and with Imperium, he proves he’s the real deal.