The expression, ‘stranger than fiction’ has rarely found a use as fitting as describing Bart Layton’s 2012 documentary, The Imposter.
In 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappeared while walking home from basketball practice. His family mounted an extensive, desperate search for his whereabouts, but ultimately considered him dead. Three years later, they received a call from Spain, where officials claimed to have found their boy, alive and well, albeit psychologically traumatized. Barclay’s family unwittingly rescued, and procured American citizenship for 24-year-old serial imposter, Frédéric Bourdin, who fooled his way past government officials in Spain and the United States into the home of a grieving family who overlooked obvious inconsistencies, who were willing to believe anything if it meant seeing their boy again. And that was just the beginning.
The Imposter is geared to read cinematically. It is a documentary in the strictest sense of the word, in that it includes actual archive footage, and narrates the progress by using interviews with Bourdin and Barclay’s family, but beyond those documentary trappings, it is as a cinematic as the likes of The Usual Suspects. Layton peppers the film with stylish recreations of events as recalled by both Bourdin and Barclay’s family, giving the film an air of pure narrative cinema. Cinematographers Erik Alexander Wilson and Lynda Hall give these sequences an astonishing life, using off-kilter framing, and moody lighting to create a sense of unease and dread, while also maintaining a sense of aesthetic beauty. The echoey sound design further heightens tension, while Andrew Hulme’s extraordinary edited evokes the pacing and stylish fluidity of the likes of The Social Network. Phrases from interviews bleed into recreated footage, lending the film a stylish meta sensation. All of these factors combine to create something that is incredibly suspenseful to watch. More importantly, the use of recreations allows the film to tell its story with a sense of immediacy. With many documentaries, the events are depicted in hindsight through recollections. Here, the ability to see events unfold, and truly understand the complexity of Bourdin’s plan, and the ways he outsmarted and played officials in both countries is astonishing. Watching the events unfold, even as the viewer knows they are watching the work of a sociopath, it is difficult not to feel invested. The Imposter conjures an unheard of amount of suspense for a documentary. The term “white knuckle thriller” is thrown around too often, yet The Imposter is the type of film that warrants the description.
The film’s musical cues evoke, once again, The Usual Suspects, leaping between quick violin stroke suspense beats to a twisty, unfolding sound of menace, eerily similar to the tune played over Suspect’s ending montage.
It isn’t just the film’s impressive cinematic style that makes it so gripping, however. The story is so utterly fascinating and compelling, that it likely would have been immersive, even without half of its style. Bourdin is mesmerizing to watch. He is utterly charming, and visibly unrepentant. He describes his techniques with a sense of glee, yet manages to humanize his actions by implying he was merely seeking the kind of acceptance from families he received as a child. His evident sociopathy does not render him two-dimensional. Here is a character who could have gotten away with his ploy, had he not sought out media attention and talk shows. He reached a point where he was ‘free’ from major suspicion, and intentionally placed himself back under scrutiny. He is utterly fascinating.
The supporting cast of characters prove equally interesting. Private Detective, Charlie Parker who begins digging deeper into the story seems to have leaped directly from the pages of a seedy crime novel, while the Barclay family seems…off. They appear both as a family who was desperate to ignore all obvious signs of wrongdoing in their desperation to have a son once more…and yet also appear as though they may have been hiding something. Perhaps they accepted an obvious imposter into their homes to avoid suspicion for something darker. Finally, the incompetent government bureaucrats are almost amusing to watch. They were so desperate to not rock the boat, and to believe a “child,” that they ignored obvious inconsistencies, because nobody wanted to be “that person” who accused a traumatized child.
Bourdin is just so brilliant, and his horrific story so ghoulishly compelling, that the film is a difficult one to look away from. It is rare that a documentary could have a twist ending…this one has several. It provides the kind of drive and adrenaline that is seldom found in the documentary world. Through its impeccable aesthetics, pacing, and interesting story to boot, The Imposter stands as one of the most compelling documentaries I have ever had the pleasure to view. It is gripping, terrifying, and heartbreaking.