Warning: There are spoilers contained within this review for those who do not know this story.
There are certain films that provoke an externalized reaction that at some point you become conscious of. It is safe to say that I spent the majority of The Imposter, a stranger than fiction true-crime documentary that evokes a combination of Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line and Tabloid, with my jaw hanging open in utter disbelief.
San Antonio, 1994: 13-year old Nicholas Barclay goes missing. 3 years and 4 months later, he is miraculously found in Spain. Except it is not Nicholas Barclay. It is a 23-year old Frenchman named Frédéric Bourdin.
Bourdin does not belong anywhere. He pretends to be an adolescent in order to be accepted into a shelter for children. Desperately in need for a false identity, Bourdin infiltrates the shelter’s office at night, makes some phone calls and stumbles across Nicholas Barclay’s name. He decides to make a go of it, astoundingly convincing officials that he is in fact the missing teenager. But that is just the beginning of this peculiar tale.
The situation reaches the point where Nicholas’ sister, Carey Gibson, travels to Spain to meet her supposed brother and bring him home. Bourdin’s luck has seemingly run out. He looks nothing like Barclay and speaks with a French accent. Improvising, he quickly manages to dye his hair blonde, receive identical tattoos and cover himself up with sunglasses, a hat and scarf. Surely Carey Gibson will immediately recognize that this is not her brother’¦
This covers roughly a third of The Imposter. What happens next is pretty wild and Layton gives the tale an appropriately sensationalistic spin. The director displays a careful control over facts as well as imperative speculation, making it the film equivalent of a page-turner through the precise hierarchy and ordering of revealed information.
Frédéric Bourdin is at the story’s center and Layton allows for him to seemingly control the telling of his own story. Bourdin knows how to spin a tale, relishing his time in front of the camera. Looking like a young and in-shape French version of Joe Pesci, the man has a snake-like charm and undeniable smarts; the fascinating spell he casts makes it easy to forget that the man is a cruel and duplicitous liar. Bourdin is very upfront about his motivations for his actions and is even able to manipulate a drop of sympathy from his audience. Layton withholds his actual identity, and the context that comes with it, until close to the end, so that we have a blank slate of an imposter with no strings attached to contend with.
The Barclay family, which includes a mother, sister, brother-in-law and a deceased brother who overdosed, do not go far in disproving any Southern stereotypes. At times their comments inadvertently lend humor to the proceedings. Charlie Parker, a private investigator who is quite the character, speaking of ears and hotcakes, enters the story when he begins to notice discrepancies between Barclay and the imposter who has replaced him.
Cinematically produced reenactments are dispersed throughout the film. They often provide the right atmosphere that narratively situates the film and the actors who portray the real-life participants are freakishly uncanny doppelgangers. But in the first third these reenactments threaten to distract as events are meticulously tracked, paving the way for overuse of Layton’s techniques.
The Imposter ponders the impenetrability of truth with its outlandish story. The entire situation makes it clear that perception, denial and lies replace whatever factual reality once existed, becoming an irreplaceable artificial truth. The film leaves us with far more questions than answers, not unlike Capturing the Friedmans.
Did Barclay’s family actually believe that they had Nicholas back? Were they so desperate to believe that they accepted this stranger into their homes? Or were they actually dim enough to truly believe this man was Nicholas? When Bourdin is taken in as Nicholas what did I feel? A speechless pity to be sure, but also the realization of the impossible coincidence in Bourdin matching up with the one family who could be duped to this scale.
The Imposter takes a turn late in its runtime as it suggests a much more disturbing and haunting Southern Gothic twist to this true-crime scenario. Layton pushes his angle as far as he comfortably can without any actual evidence. He introduces the notion by having one of Bourdin’s statements inserted as fact. The film then pulls back and reassesses the statement, clarifying its speculative nature, but the point is explicitly made. I am not entirely sold on the suggestion, but the introduction of the mere possibility of it made my hair stand on end.
On the one hand, Bourdin is a pathological liar, making it is impossible to believe anything he says that substantiates suspicion. On the other hand, there are other people (an FBI Agent named Nancy Fisher, Charlie Parker, neighbors) who clearly suspect some level of foul play. The film touches on the troubling domestic dynamic of Nicholas, his mother and drug-addict brother Jason. The cops were at the house 2 or 3 times a month. Jason and his mother did drugs and Nicholas frequently got himself in trouble. At 13 years old, Nicholas had 3 tattoos, something that is not touched on but is certainly troubling. The Imposter gives too little investigative time to Nicholas’ home life and the film returns its focus on Bourdin when there is a craving for any other information on this family.
Everyone involved is duplicitous in some way and the film turns the supposed victims into seriously questionable folks. Either way, despite their enormous suffering, they become objects of bewilderment, whether that is because of their foolishness or their possible horrific actions.
That there are no answers is perhaps most unsettling of all and The Imposter ends in a way that leaves us wanting. Where is the line between unconscious and conscious denial? Going further, where is the line between conscious denial and hidden motivations for knowingly accepting the most ludicrous of situations? We will never know for sure if the second question even applies. No matter the case, the power of delusion is strong at hand.
In the end, we return to Frederic Bourdin, whose manipulative scheming brought us into this mess. Ending with transfixing footage of a younger Bourdin dancing, as Layton inserts Johnny Cash’s ‘God’s Gonna Cut You Down’, an image that visual representative of how bizarre these real-life events were. Yet it all starts with the actual disappearance of 13-year old Nicholas Barclay, a child whose unknowable fate looms over us. The Imposter is a stranger than fiction tale that will have you aghast on the edge-of-your-seat; it is truly mind-boggling to watch unfold.