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Film Review: The Imposter

The Imposter (2012; Directed by Bart Layton)

It seems like a simple-enough story, to start with. A 13-year-old boy named Nicholas Barclay disappears from the San Antonio, Texas area one night in 1994. Three years later, his family receives an unlikely call stating that he’s been found. Such outcomes are not wholly unheard-of in missing-child cases, though they are quite rare.

But the true story that unfolds from there, as laid out by first-time feature director Bart Layton with psychological-thriller tension and film-noir re-enactments largely unseen in the documentary form to which the film nominally belongs, is hardly so clear-cut even at its beginning, and becomes stranger as it progresses. The Imposter gives itself away in its very title, and yet the film’s gripping interest lies in how the elaborate and imaginative false-identity con is unveiled and just how many of its participants, even its “victims”, are deeply implicated in its perpetuation. The answer is that everyone is implicated, but that is a very lonely answer, as Layton’s film declines (or is unable) to provide many more.

The young man who is found in 1997 and claims to be the missing Nicholas Barclay is actually Frédéric Bourdin, then 23 years of age, a Frenchman of Algerian descent and a serial identity thief who claims to have assumed 500 false identities over his criminal career. Found alone, barely speaking, refusing physical contact and without any ID in a small town in Spain, the man who would be a boy claims to be Nicholas, who would have been about 16 or 17 at that point if alive. He convinces a few key American embassy officials and then Nicholas’ older half-sister that he is who he says he is, explaining away obvious discrepancies with a detailed story of his imprisonment, transportation, and torture by an international child sex slave operation. He is issued an American passport and flown back to San Antonio to continue the life that had been interrupted. Nicholas’ family accepts him with few qualms, but the FBI and a local private investigator are less easily fooled, and in their suspicion lies the kernels of Bourdin’s eventual undoing.

This may sound somewhat interesting or somewhat less so to you, as far as it goes. But I can assure that this synopsis merely scratches the surface of the unnerving psychological portrait of humanity’s surprising capacity for deluding and for being deluded (perhaps unwittingly, perhaps wittingly) that the The Imposter presents. Layton intelligently decides not to provide an omniscient voiceover narration, allowing the participants themselves to unspool the narrative threads. This results in multiple unreliable narrators whose perspectives contradict and overlap each other in their bizarre assumptions and conclusions. Bourdin himself, a notorious confidence man, provides most of the details, and his narration style is a disarming mix of self-justification, self-deprecation, and open confession that makes the implausible and even the monstrously dishonest seem plausible and forthright. It isn’t hard to fathom how he could fool so many with such a seductive and audacious approach to telling his own story, whatever he decided he wanted that story to be at the moment of the telling.

A product of a broken home who says he never knew his Algerian father and was rejected by his mother’s traditional, white supremacist French family, Bourdin self-diagnoses the stealing of the identities of so many lost children as being part of a lifelong search for the love and sense of familial connection that he was denied as a child (he is currently married with three children, and has purportedly given up on the confidence game now that he has achieved his share of human affection). He also diagnoses the apparent willingness of Nicholas’ family to accept him as their own long-lost loved one despite deal-breaking differences between Bourdin and Barclay (his hair and eye colour are different, he is much too old, and he speaks English with an obvious French accent that no Texan-born-and-bred person would possess). He suspects a dark shared secret about Nicholas’ disappearance among his family, especially in the case of the boy’s mother, a habitual drug user with health issues and an evidently limited mental capacity.

The conned family members, especially the sister who travelled overseas to meet him first and who Bourdin claims was coaching him about family details with a set of photos, deny this accusation vehemently and attribute it to a con man’s instinct of self-preservation. Ultimately, whomever we decide to believe or not to believe, no evidence has ever been found to give any clues about Nicholas Barclay’s fate. Layton ends his unsettling documentary of tangled mysteries with the private investigator (actually named Charlie Parker, like the protagonist of a dime-store detective novel) watching a hole being dug in the backyard of a house once resided in by Nicholas’ older brother, a suspect in unproven theories of the disappearance. 16 Horsepower’s haunting version of “Wayfaring Stranger” plays on the soundtrack. The film ends before anyone learns what’s been buried or what’s been unearthed, and this is an appropriate metaphor for a real-life mystery with no real-life (or even cinematic) closure.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. December 31, 2012 at 8:52 am

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