When a child goes missing, our heart breaks, for the child’s family it is a harrowing experience. Director Bart Layton’s “The Imposter” is a documentary about a ‘true crime’ and it brings the story of a con man named Frederic Bourdin, who impersonated a young Texas boy who had disappeared at the age of 13 in 1994.
Nicholas Barclay vanished on June 13, 1994, leaving such distressing pain that drained his mother and sister dry. They desperately searched for him to no avail, they have slowly come to the realization that Nicholas is dead, and they just wish to know what had happened to him. Three years after his disappearance, the family receives a phone call that Nicholas had been found in Spain, another country in the other side of the planet. The film brings the details leading up to that phone call and the twisted story that follows.
I’d like to review this film with little spoilers as possible since I understand that many may be unfamiliar with this story. The film is fascinating and just incredible. It is a portrait of how people struggle with grief, and just how their eyes could be literally sewn shut when they see a light at the end of the tunnel. People are such emotional and complex creatures, and oftentimes, we do things that are just improbable that challenges the very core of what we call ‘common sense’. The direction leads his viewer into a roller-coaster ride, from Nicholas’ disappearance and his reappearance, it focuses on several family members, the mother, Beverly Dollarhide and the sister, Carey Gibson. Their interviews are what set the groundwork for the film, as later on, Layton brings the viewer into the workings of a lie.
I do have to admit, details of the lie itself and just how someone could easily manipulate a system was unbelievable. I suppose it was proof that ‘the power of suggestion’ does exist, that the more someone hears something or even witnesses something, the more their perceptions could be manipulated. The direction quickly draws one in, we know what was going on, and yet, we find ourselves asking, “why is this guy doing such a thing?”. Once, the film goes into the interviews of the officials involved, investigators and acquaintances of the family, the strength of the film goes into overdrive, as the film paints the broadest and impartial look of the story.
Layton was careful not to indelibly link the people to the story they are sharing. He dramatizes on the bases of what is being shared, he does not add any unneeded ’fat’, making the documentary feel authentic and accurate. Memory is not at all reliable at times, and by dropping words out of the people’s mouths, he positively reminds the viewer that what they are seeing is just a recreation. I was also intrigued with Layton’s use of several police footages that included “Kojak”, it was a nice creative touch that showed his imagination. This also serves as a contrast to the very real segments before Nicholas’ disappearance, and the crucial real footage shot of his ’reappearance’. It was almost an expression as to how a lie can seem real, even when contrasting evidence was evidently visible.
Bart Layton made some incredible directorial decisions. The way he shot his film is similar to Errol Morris’ true crime documentary called “The Thin Blue Line”. He definitely makes the interviews the central focus of the film, having a few cinematic re-enactments to guide it along. He also makes a very good move in allowing the staged re-enactments kind of interact with the speaker. Some words spoken by the family or by Bourdin are timed to the staged footage, that puts the dialogue into the actor’s mouth. With the film’s eerie soundtrack, the film feels incredibly cinematic, as the film tightens its grip on its viewer.
Layton’s approach was impartial, although I saw some segments that felt a little more manipulative than the rest of the film. The interview process with a private investigator named Charlie Parker in the third act felt a little more on the ‘thriller’ side and with the reveal of the twist, once the interview with a psychologist made for a very unnerving reveal. Layton was still able to keep control, he kept things on point and like a showman, he unmasks several other possibilities that could make the viewer ponder and see the earlier details from a whole different light.
I do have to commend just how careful and meticulous Layton was able to keep things impartial and instead leaves his viewer with a harrowing question. He offers credible answers and leaves us something that we can wonder about. The how, why and what were answered, but then still leaves us a lingering question, Nicholas Barclay is still missing. Just what happened and it may be a mystery that will remain unsolved. “The Imposter” is a haunting, dazzling, a fine piece of storytelling, that first time director Bart Layton proved that he has the eye, the skill and the talent to do such a movie. It would no doubt provoke its viewers to research the case on the internet, I know I did.
I don’t watch all that many documentaries. It isn’t that I don’t like them. Rather, it’s that most that I’ve seen in my life tend to go to great lengths exploring the reasons behind, say, a central behavior. The narrator and his (or her) investigators go to immeasurable lengths to uncover exactly the who’s, what’s, where’s, when’s, and why’s. Near the conclusion, they … more
Star Rating: The Imposter plays like a particularly good episode of Unsolved Mysteries, not just because actual documentary footage is interspersed with reenactments, but also because the true story it tells is a thoroughly absorbing combination of intrigue and suspense. As with all good thrillers, fictional or non, what begins as a seemingly simple crime eventually escalates into something much more complicated; it’s not so much about who has done something … more