Considered a dead-cert win at the Academy Awards next year, Bart Layton's documentary The Imposter has rapidly generated a great deal of notoriety and acclaim. The quintessential 'stranger than fiction' tale, it's sensational blend of archive footage, delicate reconstructions and heartrending talking head interviews illustrate that, not only is Layton a masterful, investigative reporter, but moreover a profoundly impressive storyteller.
Back in 1994, the blue-collar Barclay family from San Antonio, Texas, was left distraught after the disappearance of their 13-year-old son, Nicholas. Like any teenage boy, Nicholas was a cocksure kid, filled with energy, love for his family, and certainly wouldn't runaway from home for no good reason. Weeks turned into months, and eventually the case was abandoned by the police and press. Three years later, the local Texas police department receives an international call from Spain. On the receiving end is a character claiming to be Nicholas. Putting in a bogus story about how he escaped the clutches of a drug fuelled, pedophilic organization, the police think his story check out, and soon enough Nicholas' sister Carey jets over to Europe to meet her long lost brother. In front of police officials, she takes a good look and identifies him as the legitimate lost brother. Three years ago, Nicholas was a blue-eyed, spunky American teenager, now he's transformed into a dark haired, brown-eyed man with stubble and an irreplaceable French accent.
The Imposter, like it's central subject, is not the documentary you expect it to be. With many twists, contortions and moral judgements, your pretty much open-mouth and on the edge of your seat throughout the film's entirety. That's partly down to Layton's craft, particularly the Errol Morris-like interviewing technique – which sees people gaze directly into the lens of the camera and, vicariously, straight at us. But, even more astounding, is the capricious performer that names the film. Frédéric Bourdin, a then 23-year-old man of French-Algerian descent, is actively impersonating Nicholas the whole time, convincing not only the state officials, but the abandoned boy's own mother. With a shrouded history as a homeless orphan thrown into the life of deception and petty crime, he longed to fit in and have a family of his own. When that opportunity didn't surface, he decided to steal Nicholas's own.
"How could he get away with it?" I hear you cry. That's something I'll leave for you to answer when you see this documentary. Suffice to say, Bourdin is an intimidatingly convincing, intelligent and charismatic figure. To the point where we sit back and reflect whether we could have been swung by his quick wit. Even if Bourdin is the great pretender, a new revelation in the film's final act suggests that the Barclay family are perhaps keeping up appearances of their own.
It may not be my favourite documentary of the year (The Act of Killing, if you were wondering), but The Imposter is the best psychological thriller I've seen in recent memory. It transcends the documentary stratum. A dauntingly universal account of a missing child and false identity, it's stupefying moments will leave you silenced whilst the movie plays out. But, as soon as the credits roll, you'll be talking about this exceptional movie for years to come.
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