This story of a Frenchman who passed himself off as a Texas family’s missing teenage son in 1997 presents a series of events too sensational for fiction. In The Imposter, the astounding tale is recounted by, not only the victimised family, but the actual imposter himself, Frédéric Bourdin, in amazing detail. What is revealed is a real-life thriller as gripping as any film to hit the big screen this year.
The scene is set by a brief explanation of how 13-year old Nicholas Barclay went missing on his way home late one night in 1994. Grainy home video footage provides glimpses of the boy who, it had seemed at the time, would miraculously be found in Spain three years later. The audacious Bourdin narrates his side of the story, as actors portray the events he describes. Carey Gibson, Nicholas’ older sister, provides her take on the matter, as the family member most responsible for the return of “Nicholas” to the US. Interviews with other relatives- including his mother, an FBI special agent, a US consul, and a private detective are all expertly weaved into the fabric of Layton’s documentary. The level of candour exhibited by Bourdin is simply astonishing, as the man exposes himself to be a textbook psychopath. However, what Bourdin may lack in remorse, he makes up for in shameless honesty, fully explaining his motivations and thought processes behind his cruel ruse. While The Imposter is very much about how this one, deeply disturbed man managed to pull off such a remarkable con, a jaw-dropping twist to this already shocking story awaits.
Despite having a background based solely in television documentary work, Layton does an excellent job of building the “characters” of this story, as the seeds are planted for the revelation that shifts the focus and prompts the viewer to think twice about the facts and those involved. The composition and structure of the documentary is nearly flawless, with elegant editing giving the piece a slick presentation. The re-enactments work quite well, but it’s the added touches, such as actual VHS footage of “Nicholas” arriving at the airport to be greeted by his family that resonate strongest. Through it all, the question of ‘how could this possibly happen?’ looms overhead, but all the involved parties get a chance to explain their roles and reasoning. At one point, Nicholas’ mother freely admits “He had changed so much… it was mind-boggling” but had attributed those changes to the traumas he was believed to have endured. As such, The Imposter appears to illustrate the lengths some people will go to in order to keep their faith, or to fool themselves into believing in happy endings. Regardless of what the truth actually is, Layton has captured a fascinating psychological portrait of a man desperately seeking a fresh start who will stop at nothing to obtain it. While unmasking the man beneath the guise, that same close scrutiny indicates that it may not just be Bourdin who has created a fiendish façade. Truly, there’s never a dull moment with The Imposter.
With his brilliant account of this stranger-than-fiction case of fraud, Layton has produced a superbly dramatic cinematic experience. A beautiful blend of human-interest piece and crime-thriller, The Imposter is thoroughly fascinating from start to finish. Rarely does a scripted film deliver the kind of engaging, perfectly presented narrative that Layton’s spectacular documentary provides. The Imposter isn’t just one of the year’s finest documentaries; it’s one of its finest films, full stop.