Documentary filmmaker Bart Layton puts a spoiler in the title of The Imposter, a gripping new film with more suspense and better twists than a dozen Hollywood thrillers put together.
The Imposter recounts the strange true story of Nicholas Barclay, a towheaded, rebellious 13-year-old who went missing in San Antonio in 1994. In 1997, the still-grieving family received a call from authorities in Spain, claiming that Nicholas had resurfaced, three years older and severely traumatized. Within five minutes, The Imposter reveals things are not what they seem, and that a dark-haired, brown-eyed French-Algerian 23-year-old was claiming to be the blue-eyed, blond American teen.
We know this because the titular imposter, later identified as Frédéric Bourdin, serves as one of the film's primary on-screen narrators and explains the turn of events that led him to a modest home in San Antonio. Initially, Bourdin simply wanted to get off the streets and find security in a home for wayward teens. Pressed to reveal his identity, Bourdin claimed to be an American and used access to a phone and fax machine to gain access to the U.S. network regarding missing and exploited children.
In a sequence worthy of the film Catch Me If You Can, Bourdin realized he loosely fit Nicholas Barclay's description and claimed to be the young missing Texan, with no forethought about the likely consequences. Layton relies on dramatized sequences from 1997, but uses the interviewees' narration to drive the action, instead of the actors.
The Imposter intercuts between interviews with Bourdin, U.S. diplomats, FBI agents, and members of Nicholas' family, including his adult sister Carey Gibson. Gibson describes the family's grief at Nicholas' vanishing, their jubilation at his discovery, and her journey to Spain to retrieve him. And when they meet at the children's home, she even identifies him as Nicholas, to Bourdin's surprise. The American family attributes his change in voice and appearance partly due to three years of adolescence, but also to the physical and psychological toll of his ordeal, which he claims involved torture and sexual slavery.
Nicholas's family clearly has endured their own trauma in the boy's tragic disappearance and three years of uncertainty. They seem so distraught by their loss that they'd rather accept a false narrative than focus on such contradictory evidence as Bourdin's inability to speak unaccented English. Or do they have their own hidden agenda in the situation? And given that Bourdin is an admitted liar, should we accept any of his story at face value?
When the action shifts from Europe to America, Layton occasionally uses pop oldies like David Bowie's "Queen Bitch" for Hollywood-style montages. The film doesn't quite match Errol Morris' intricate analysis of fact vs. hearsay in The Thin Blue Line. Primarily, The Imposter relies in its colorful subjects, including a crusty private investigator and a white-collar FBI officer, to unravel the various deceptions. The film may reveal one of its secrets early on, but it drops bombshells that make you re-evaluate earlier scenes in a completely different light.
Following 2010's Exit Through the Gift Shop and Catfish, The Imposter considers the slippery relationship between truth, fiction, and our ability to distinguish between the two. You half except to hear Bourdin ask the famous question, "What are you going to believe — me, or your own two eyes?"
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