A documentary-thriller recounting the true-life story of how French conman Frédéric Bourdin successfully assumed the identity of a missing American schoolboy. In 1997, three years after 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappeared from his home in Texas, a male who didn’t match the physical description turned up in Spain and somehow managed to convince the authorities, the FBI and the Barclay family that he was Nicholas…
The truth, as they say, is often stranger than fiction. Take this for example: A mixed-race Parisian with a thick French accent, dark hair, dark eyes, facial stubble and the body of a grown man manages to convince everyone involved that he is actually the blond-haired, blue-eyed Texan boy several years his junior who went missing. How would he get away with it? How would he persuade the police? And how, most mind-bogglingly of all, would he convince the family?
Importantly, it’s best to approach the movie not knowing the answers to these questions, since the enjoyment lies in unravelling the mystery through a series of shocking twists and turns. Of course, if The Imposter was a fictional feature you’d likely dismiss it as unconvincing and unbelievable, so it’s to filmmaker Bart Layton’s credit that he preserved the truth by opting for a wisely-chosen docu-thriller format. Consistently involving (even if you’re not usually a fan of documentaries), it’s a fascinating and disquieting gothic horror which examines identity theft and, perhaps even more worryingly, the human mind’s capacity for self-denial.
It’s an impressively cinematic affair, too. Creating a sinister mood right from the off, Layton employs some stylish re-enactments (see the pavement-hugging shot which leads up the phone booth as rain lashes down) to complement the assortment of contemporary talking heads and archive footage. Of course, documentary purists might object that the truth is being manipulated at times – but perhaps that’s the point. A powerful film about lies and deception, Layton named The Usual Suspects as a key influence for The Imposter, given the use of an unreliable narrator.
Which brings us to the imposter himself, Frédéric Bourdin. While his involvement might seem like bad taste to some viewers, the movie wouldn’t be nearly as interesting without him. Both charismatic and unsettling, simultaneously disarming and repellent (even the gap between his front teeth is chilling), he’s a compelling raconteur who’s very happy to chat away about the whole process. Despite showing absolutely no remorse for his actions (well, not on camera at least), you get the sense that this master manipulator – and he is a master manipulator – views the whole thing as a grand coup. Which is arguably the scariest thing of all.
Consistently involving even if you’re not usually a fan of documentaries, The Imposter is a fascinating and disquieting gothic horror which examines identity theft and the human mind’s capacity for self-denial.