Directed by Bart Layton.
2012. Rated R, 99 minutes.
Every now and again we see something in life, on television, or on the internet that makes us wonder just how stupid people can be. Other things make us shudder at the thought of the human capacity for being sinister and deceptive. The Imposter is a documentary that does both. It starts with the 1994 disappearance of Nicholas Barclay, a thirteen year old Texan boy. After three years of searching, with no luck, the family has just about lost all hope when they receive a phone call informing them Nicholas has been found. In Spain. Big sis Carey immediately boards a plane to retrieve her now seventeen year old brother. However, she does not yet know what we’ve already learned. The boy she is coming to get is not Nicholas. He is, in fact, a twenty-three-year-old man named Frédéric Bourdin posing as the lost teenager. He happened upon this identity in a desperate attempt to conceal his own. Logically, he assumes the jig will be up once Carey gets a look at him. After all, judging from a picture he obtained, he looks nothing like Nicholas.
This is where it gets really interesting. When Nicholas shows up to take her brother home, she embraces and accepts this guy as if he actually is her brother. She brings him back to Texas where the entire family, mom included, accepts him as Nicholas. Given the differences between Nicholas and the person they now have, this is beyond baffling. Nicholas was a fair-skinned, blue-eyed, blonde-haired boy. The man they trust is an older version of him is blonde, but because he colors his hair. Aside from this, he has a dark complexion and, most damning, brown eyes. In fact, it appears obvious that he is of a different ethnicity than anyone in the family. If none of that rings alarms, let’s throw in the fact he speaks with a heavy French accent. Still, no one in the family seems wise to the facts. Local officials are suspicious and begin investigating. Things hit the fan when the “new” Nicholas becomes a minor celebrity as news of his harrowing ordeal and miraculous return. He tells a sensational tale of mental and sexual abuse during his time as a captive, at the hands of military men from various nations including the U.S.
The movie proceeds from there while we watch in slack-jawed amazement. The first question is how long can this charade go on before indisputable evidence is uncovered, forcing the family to realize this guy is a fake. We hear several authorities involved in piecing together this puzzle give their recollection of their interactions with and pursuit of Bourdin. There are also lots of interviews with the family and, most interestingly, with Bourdin, himself. Mixed into all of these are some dramatizations of actual events. This stroke of genius helps the movie almost feel like a fiction narrative and is a nice change of pace from all of the talking heads.
The other questions The Imposter raises is where it runs into trouble. Why would Bourdin do such a thing? What really happened to him before he was picked up by the police in Spain while pretending to be a sniveling lost child? The film never dares to approach either one. It does touch on another, but in an unsatisfactory manner. That question is did the family have something to do with Nicholas’ disappearance in the first place. This would give them a motive for going along with the façade. We hear allegations from Bourdin about what he thinks happened. However, he is not exactly trustworthy. A few members of the family refute these claims. No surprise there. There is the private eye who has been snooping around trying to find out what happened to the boy and potentially comes upon an answer. The movie even ends as if he makes some startling discovery. The issue is that what we are told next, just before the credits roll, totally undermines this. In essence, the movie finishes when it feels like it should be shifting into another gear.
What’s here is still a fascinating story. It is the kind of movie that could only be a documentary. Had this been some screenwriter’s concoction, it would be laughed off for being too ridiculous. Think about it. How do you sell a work of fiction in which a teenage boy from Texas with classic All-American looks returns home as a darkly complected Frenchman with different color eyes? I suppose it’s possible as a farce starring Adam Sandler, or Will Ferrell, but certainly not as a serious thriller. This is precisely what makes The Imposter work as well as it does. We simply cannot believe what we are seeing, yet can’t look away. We wait for someone to make sense of it all. Even though that wait is largely in vain, we still have a film that’s hard to shake loose from our heads.