The Imposter isn’t so much a documentary as it is a deliciously twisted thriller. Sure, everything in the film “happened” and the real participants are giving the details of their stories to offset the Errol Morris styled recreations of events, but the question of truth and the true nature of identity are called into question during every frame of director Bart Layton’s mesmerizing look at a con man who might be getting conned himself.
13 year old Texan boy Nicholas Barclay went missing in 1995, but this ultimately isn’t his story. Three years following his disappearance, Frédéric Bourdin, a man in his early 20s living on the streets of Paris gets picked up for vagrancy. Fearing going into a group home or prison, Bourdin thinks quickly and crafts the con of his life in a matter of 24 hours. Looking at the missing children’s report for Barclay, he insists he’s the missing boy despite having different hair, eye colour, and, you know, being older than the person he’s pretending to be.
Bourdin isn’t a particularly likable fellow and he seems thoroughly unrepentant about the situation even now. He very clearly preyed on the sympathies of those around him to get out a tight situation, but things get a lot more complicated when the audience realizes something far darker is going on beneath the surface. When he’s returned to the family who thinks they have found their long lost boy, it’s shockingly business as usual.
Over time Bourdin begins to realize that not only did he trick the FBI, but that something isn’t quite right about his surrogate family. He knows they can’t fully buy that this Algerian born older man could possibly be their kid. When questions of what really happened to Nicolas start to arise and a private investigator joins the fray, that’s when Layton’s film takes off.
Layton goes to painstaking lengths to make sure every side of this story gets told, and while there’s clearly spin being put on the material from Bourdin, the Barclay family, and members of the FBI who have to eat crow and admit they simply wanted to clear the case from their books, it effectively conveys just how elaborate of a shell game was being played by all involved. Layton’s recreations of events aren’t exploitative in any way, and his quick editing style effectively keeps the audience on their toes.
Layton wants to make the viewer question not only the validity of the story, but also the validity of the image. Even in interviews with the people involved, Layton shoots in such a way to make everything seem decidedly unreal and skewed. In a story where no one can be excused for their actions, Layton has to work harder to make the story have some shred of humanity. Much like how Bourdin plays on the sympathies of others, Layton stops short of making the man into someone who was wronged. There’s plenty of blame to go around, and by the film’s ambiguous, but stunning conclusion, we aren’t any closer to knowing the truth than when we started.
The actual case has been covered by news magazines and the media in the past, but Layton has really been the only person who attempted to pull all of the conflicting and contradictory elements together into a non-biased thread. On top of that balance, he also creates one of the best thrillers of the year. It’s one of this year’s definite “can’t miss” documentaries.
Cast: Frédéric Bourdin
Directed by: Bart Layton
Top image: A scene from The Imposter. Courtesy eOne Films.