Saturday, August 20, 2016

In Theaters/On VOD: IMPERIUM (2016)

(US - 2016)

Written and directed by Daniel Ragussis. Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Toni Collette, Tracy Letts, Sam Trammell, Nestor Carbonell, Burn Gorman, Chris Sullivan, Seth Numrich, Pawel Szajda, Devin Druid, Linc Hand, Adam Maier, Roger Yawson. (R, 108 mins)

It's hard not to be reminded of 1998's AMERICAN HISTORY X or 2002's THE BELIEVER while watching IMPERIUM. It's another chronicle of white supremacy, but while it provides insightful commentary on the nature of fascism, its primary concern is being a straightforward thriller. It's also yet another example of the changing nature of film distribution. Headlined by an actor known the world over, it's a sad commentary that a solid, crackerjack nail-biter like this is relegated to a few screens and a VOD dumping. It didn't cost much to make and it's not an offbeat art film. It's a smart movie that would've been a hit 10-15 years ago, and it's depressing that there's no place for IMPERIUM in today's blockbuster-obsessed, franchise-driven distribution model. It's also a very topical film considering the rhetoric of a major American political party's Presidential nominee, a man whose words and opinions have frequently been termed "fascist." IMPERIUM looks at the motivation behind fascism and what really drives it ("it's about looking for someone to blame"), and does so without being overtly political. There's no liberal vs. conservative soapboxing here, but it does provide a sometimes terrifying look inside the white supremacy culture, much like AMERICAN HISTORY X did. The stereotypes are there, but they don't always apply. White power meetings take place at suburban homes in IMPERIUM. The ugly rhetoric is discussed at backyard barbecues while children play, and where housewives bake cookies decorated with swastikas. These are people you know, and you don't know them at all.

Young FBI agent Nate Foster (Daniel Radcliffe) is a quiet outsider among his colleagues, riding along on raids but spending most of his time at his desk combing through surveillance material. It's his introverted and analytical nature that attracts the attention of Agent Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette). When six sealed barrels of radioactive cesium go missing from an overturned chemical transport vehicle outside of Washington, D.C., Zamparo is convinced it's part of a plot by Richmond-area white power radio host Dallas Wolf (Tracy Letts) to detonate a dirty bomb in the nation's capital. She wants Nate to go undercover as a skinhead and infiltrate Wolf's inner circle. Passing himself off as an embittered vet just back from Iraq, Nate gets his foot in the door by getting chummy with low-level dirtbags like Vince (Pawel Szajda) and Roy (Seth Numrich), guys who talk loud and are always looking for a fight. This introduces him to the more connected Ohio-based religious militia figure Andrew Blackwell (Chris Sullivan) and engineer Gerry Conway (Sam Trammell). While Blackwell is the standard-issue, swastika-sporting skinhead, albeit with more drive, focus, and a seemingly intelligent demeanor than clowns like Vince and Roy, Conway is an upper-middle class suburban husband and father with a successful career. Of course, he's taught his kids that their playhouse needs to be fortified in case "the mud people" attack, but Nate is caught off-guard by how far from the stereotype Conway and his associates present themselves. Conway even tells Nate "You seem a little mature for a skinhead," as they observe the drinking, fighting, and carrying on of Vince and Roy. Nate is eventually introduced to Wolf, by spinning a story about being backed by an investor who wants to take Wolf's show nationwide but needs assurance that his plans are coming to fruition. When a small Geiger counter indicates high levels of radiation in Wolf's house, Nate and Zamparo are convinced that the cesium is on the premises and set in motion a plan to take down Wolf and his followers.

Things don't go according to plan, but little does in IMPERIUM. It's a film that never plays out how you expect it to and adds unpredictable little asides that sometimes border on black comedy: witness the cringeworthy moment when a humiliated Vince, who talks a big game about "going way back with Dallas," isn't even recognized by the radio host when he introduces Nate to him. Or, even funnier, when Nate visits Wolf at his nondescript house in an average neighborhood and finds that this white power hero is a middle-aged man who still lives with his mother. It's her house and the much ballyhooed radio show is broadcast from a tiny den in the basement ("This is just temporary!" Wolf keeps adamantly insisting). Wolf spouts a lot of ideas online and in his speeches ("Diversity is a code word for 'white genocide!'"), but the early signs that he's little more than a shit-stirring troll who regards his followers as little more than useful idiots are telling. It's a very subtle performance by Letts, a veteran playwright and screenwriter (BUG, KILLER JOE, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY), who's only recently been gaining ground as an actor in films like THE BIG SHORT, ELVIS & NIXON, and an acclaimed turn in INDIGNATION. Radcliffe is credible and believable throughout, though director Daniel Ragussis' script, inspired by a true story involving now-retired FBI agent Michael German, sometimes abandons key figures and plot points. It's stated that "a lot of these white supremacist guys are all talk," but as the true threat presents itself, we never see what happens to some of the others, and this is after Blackwell makes it quite clear something about Nate doesn't gel. But then we never see him again. The audience might also like to know more about the African-American protester at a white power rally who recognizes Nate and asks him what he's doing there (staying in character, Nate has to respond by shouting "Shut the fuck up, n----r!"), but we never see him again.

It's around this time that IMPERIUM pivots from AMERICAN HISTORY X-type statement to a domestic terrorism thriller along the likes of ARLINGTON ROAD or the little-seen UNTHINKABLE. The shift is smooth enough that it isn't awkward or a major disruption, but it's noticeable. And it still works. Though its antagonists differ, IMPERIUM actually has a lot in common with UNTHINKABLE, a terrific film that should've received more exposure than it got, but maybe that's the issue right there. It would be one thing if Radcliffe were paired up with, say, Bruce Willis in a quipping, mismatched buddy actioner about two FBI agents out to stop a white supremacist outfit...if they don't kill each other first!  That's a film that would get a wide release. But think back to ARLINGTON ROAD's release being delayed for several months in 1999 because of the Columbine tragedy. 2010's UNTHINKABLE and now IMPERIUM are two smart yet multiplex-ready, commercial thrillers that take a completely serious and uncompromising approach to their subject. Maybe the potential for controversy is too much of a headache. Maybe movies like this just make studios uncomfortable. They wouldn't have 20 or 30 years ago. This is not to imply that IMPERIUM is some kind of classic or anything, but it is a good film that deserves a much better rollout than it's getting.

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