In 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappeared after storming out of his San Antonio home. Three years later, his family got a call from a Spanish juvenile center, where a man claiming to be Nicholas had been found. Bart Layton’s documentary The Imposter follows what happened next, and it’s one wild story, about a wily European who convinced the Barclays he was their long-lost son. True, the kid seemed older than Nicholas would’ve been, and looked very different, and spoke with a French accent. But this new “Nicholas”—actually a 23-year-old con artist named Frédéric Bourdin—explained these discrepancies via a convoluted story about torture and reprogramming. The real question is: Why did the Barclays buy it? Because they wanted to believe, or for some more nefarious reason?
Layton takes a just-the-facts approach to the narrative, letting the participants speak directly into the camera about what happened, then supporting them with Errol Morris-like re-enactments. There are pros and cons to this approach. The flashy style suits a story that’s like a classic piece of art-noir, complete with colorful private detective Charlie Parker, who looks like he stepped out of a Coen brothers movie. But because almost all of the movie consists of testimony and staging, there isn’t much room for deep immersion into the world of San Antonio and the Barclays’ lives, which might’ve helped viewers empathize more with this family, and to make up their own minds about why they were duped. Layton tells the audience only what he wants them to know, and when he wants them to know it.
On the other hand, because Layton controls the information so tightly, he’s able to spring a few surprises, including one doozy toward the end. Ultimately, The Imposter doesn’t function so much as a true crime story, or a piece of investigative journalism. Layton has designed this film partly as a tall tale—with amusing fish-out-of-water anecdotes about Bourdin’s experiences posing as a Texas high-schooler—and partly as an intellectual exercise. The Imposter strings the audience along, to get them to understand first-hand how easy it is to buy into a well-told story, even when there’s no evidence to support it.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit The Imposter's Spoiler Space.