I arrived at The Imposter atop a crest of anticipation brought about by the seeming consensus amongst film critics that this was the documentary event of the year, guaranteed to astound and enthral. The trailer does a great job of sucking you into the premise, and for UK audiences it has even been gilded with praising quotations and an intimidating roster of five-star verdicts.
For those not in the know, Bart Layton’s film explores the story of Frédéric Bourdin, who, at 23, took on the persona of a 16-year-old missing Texan boy named Nicholas Barclay, in an effort to secure himself the kind of family closeness that has eluded him his whole life. Bourdin’s discovery that he looked nothing like the missing boy is one thing, that the Barclay family welcomed him with open arms regardless of this is quite another. And so Layton’s film asks the audience to do as the Barclays have appeared to, and suspend our disbelief and follow the story as further twisting revelations unfurl.
Layton chooses to tell his story through fairly unconventional means. The reconstruction has been a staple of the documentary for years, but the degree to which it is applied in The Imposter moves us more into the realms of docu-drama. That these reconstructions also feature the real Bourdin – who narrates nearly the whole film – pushes the film further out of the realms of pure documentary, into the murky waters in which objectivity becomes blurred. For a considerable time this feels more like a platform for Bourdin to show off his Machiavellian techniques of deception. As he casually remarks about his supposed sister, “I washed her brain.” Other people get a say, sure, but their remarks are framed in such a way as to only bolster Bourdin’s con.
Bourdin is an engaging figure; a braggart who tries to earn sympathy with sob stories of his troubled childhood, whilst simultaneously giving the impression of being a complete sociopath, with no genuine regard for the feelings of others. His tale is offset by interview snippets from the confused, hurt and rueful family members, whose apparent dim-wittedness is as unbelievable as Bourdin’s tenacity. Early on, Barclay’s sister Carey Gibson seems to be under the impression that Spain is part of the United States, whilst the mother, when questioned about the whole incident replies, “My main goal in life at that time was not to think.” Yeah. No shit.
In fairness, the family’s apparent eagerness to get their son back may have blinded them to the realities of what was happening, and Bourdin may have successfully pulled it off if it hadn’t been for private eye Charlie Parker (whose attentiveness to the human ear is as remarkable as anything else here) and trauma therapist Bruce Perry, seemingly the only people involved with any simple common sense. Bourdin himself has other theories as to why he was so readily accepted, which steer the film into murkier waters still.
All of which sounds like it ought to have added up to a juicy and involving documentary… except it hasn’t. The bias towards Bourdin’s version of events lends the film an awkward one-sided nature that it never fully recovers from. And whilst a documentary about the nature of truth that purposefully skews itself through one narrator’s undependable version of events is a provocative thought, the result is less than satisfying. The Imposter feels less like a serious documentary and more like the explanation of a magic trick, one laboured well beyond the running time it can comfortably sustain.
The first half of the film teases out Bourdin’s creation of his new persona and initial meeting with Carey Gibson to such a degree that I began to seriously wonder if there was enough material here for Layton to have legitimately made this into a feature presentation. This is then backed up by a more intriguing second half in which a lot of material and conjecture is thrown at the audience at a far more accelerated speed, as information is arranged with the intent of blindsiding the audience with a series of ‘twists’. Layton’s film is more fascinated by Bourdin than the facts, building instead a house of cards as the story shifts depending on who’s telling it. This worked brilliantly in Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing The Friedmans. Here it is considerably less successful.
The frustrating sense is therefore given that there is a compelling documentary in this story, but that Layton has elected to shift the focus in order to create something else. The reconstructions are beautifully shot, but the film relies on them too much. Key elements such as the particulars of Nicholas Barclay’s disappearance and the investigation into his whereabouts are given only the most cursory of coverage. What Layton has instead created is a pedestal for Bourdin to stand on and sound off. He’s here to tell you how clever he was at everyone’s expense. He is given a legitimacy that may not be warranted.
Ultimately the real imposter here turned out to be Layton’s film, which, arriving in a flurry of praise, has turned out to be only mildly diverting. It could have been a searing documentary or a compelling drama. By straddling the middle ground it manages to be neither. Worth seeing, sure, but worth seeking out? I’m less convinced.