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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A documentary about a con man pulls its own ingenious con on the audience

Illustration for article titled A documentary about a con man pulls its own ingenious con on the audience

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: As we roll out our picks for the best films of the decade so far, several A.V. Club writers stump for favorites that didn’t make the list.


The Imposter (2012)

Once perceived as truth incarnate, documentaries are increasingly choosing to straddle the line between fiction and nonfiction, often in remarkably creative and thought-provoking ways. Bart Layton’s 2012 film The Imposter takes this concept to a disorienting new level, with the audience getting punk’d so subtly that many viewers don’t even recognize that it’s happened. On its surface, the movie is about Frédéric Bourdin, a French criminal who somehow managed to pass himself off as a missing American teenager, Nicholas Barclay, despite Bourdin’s thick French accent and complete lack of resemblance to Nicholas. Bourdin tells his story, gleefully, directly to Layton’s camera, and Layton even has Bourdin appear in some of his expressionistic reenactments—sometimes as himself, sometimes as the folks he’s conning. Meanwhile, Nicholas’ family fails to explain, in copious interviews, how they could have mistaken Bourdin for their own child/sibling, even allowing for the fact that three years had passed since his disappearance.

Bourdin’s tale is so incredible that just about any approach to it would have made for a compulsively watchable movie. Layton has something considerably wilier in mind, however. At a certain point in the film, various parties start floating a theory about what might really have happened to Nicholas. Then The Imposter employs further reenactments, plus selective editing of the family’s recollections (which remain entirely present-tense, with no retroactive justifications), to ensure that the audience winds up making exactly the same mistake that the family did—again, often without even realizing it. The film is a dizzyingly effective look at the internal mechanisms of confirmation bias, inviting us to goggle at other people’s inexplicable behavior while it simultaneously manipulates us to accept patent nonsense just because that nonsense fulfills our need for a satisfying ending. Some have interpreted the final shot as ambiguous, but it’s actually Layton’s triumphant mic drop. An unbelievable true story, a queasy black comedy, a formally audacious doc/fiction hybrid, and an uninflected portrait of a sociopath, The Imposter adds brilliant rhetorical depth to material so superficially entertaining that it doesn’t even need it.

Availability: The Imposter is available on Blu-ray and DVD from your local video store/library. It’s also currently streaming on Netflix, and can be rented or purchased from the major digital services.