Tuesday, August 21, 2012


The Imposter
July 13, 2012
99 min
United Kingdom (English, Spanish)

Directed by Bart Layton

"The Imposter" puts a new spin on documentaries while mining the vein of Errol Morris and James Marsh. The mysterious story of a missing boy who turned up years later is given a marvelous retelling.


First up and straight up: How often do we go into a movie knowing little to nothing about what we are soon to watch (or in other words, going in cold)? I would wager not very oft. Aside from some classes and film festivals I have attended I am usually aware and partially informed of what I am about to watch. The reason I bring this up is because I imagine that going into "The Imposter" knowing little to nothing about the events depicted will only upgrade the bizarre and shocking effect this film had on myself and the theater-full I saw it with. 

What follows in the paragraphs below is a typical review: I will provide some setup synopsis, discuss certain scenes/moments, and give an assessment of the filmmaking involved. As always I will avoid any major "spoilers" and pen an analysis that I hope would be worth reading for those who have not and have seen the film. For the former, reasons you should (in this film's case) see this. For the latter, my take to compare with your own. I typically do not start reviews with all this mumbo-jumbo, but thought it would be a worthwhile refreshing of the goal(s) of my review(s) for writer and reader alike and to encourage any and everyone to have the most ideal viewing experience for the one of the best films in years, "The Imposter."


In 1994 Nicholas Barclay, a 13-year-old Texas boy, never came home one night and was reported missing. His family mourned their loss and strived to carry on as the years went by. In 1997 Nicholas was reported as found... in France. Bewildered but grateful, the Barclays awaited the arrival of the son, brother, and nephew they thought they had lost. At times I have thought it a significant reveal to disclose here that the young man returned to America was not the same little boy who went missing three years ago. The trailer for "The Imposter" strongly hints at this. Upon seeing the movie this fact is revealed within minutes. Furthermore, let us remember what the movie is entitled.


Frédéric Bourdin was orphaned at a young age and always wanted to find a family he could fit into. He learned of the missing American boy and thought he would take his place. Through convincing authorities he found his plan realized, much to his surprise and our own. Bourdin assumes the identity of Nicholas Barclay, a name he cannot even pronounce correctly due to his thick French accent. Bourdin is the imposter.

Here is a documentary that will surely leave you gasping and gaping incredulously at the goings-on with the developments of this case. The Barclays bewilder us with their lack of skepticism. A frustrated FBI agent cannot seem to catch a break. An older (and thus amusing) private investigator is fixated on ears and what people had for lunch. Frédéric Bourdin somehow gets us on his side. And quickly too! That's the scary part. I reacted to "The Imposter" in ways that surprised myself including laughing when it felt wrong. I was not the only one though, so I am pretty sure I am not crazy.


Much of this film contains "talking head" interviews lit in a Chiaroscuro manner. The contemporary grimness of the Barclays tells us this doesn't end well. Bourdin is the only one in a specific yet void location, telling us even more about his character and where he might belong. Most of the others in this story do not smile, but Bourdin does. A lot. It usually seems to say, "I can't believe I got away with this." Neither can we.

Afraid of interviews? Fear not. Mandane is not an option here. Bart Layton has sewn dozens of rich reenactments where they gel nicely with the spoken words. He even plays with Bourdin's dialogue, occasionally inserting it upon Adam O'Brian who portrays Bourdin's 1997 self. This is an engaging technique of blurring the line between interviews and reenactments that I have not experienced before. For both of these doc totems you can see trails blazed by Errol Morris and even the new ace, James Marsh. These two great documentarians have employed low-key interrogations with their subjects and slow-motion visions of their descriptions. "The Thin Blue Line," "Man on Wire" and now "The Imposter" belong to the crop that feature both movies and documents for the price of one. For those who think they do not care for documentaries (or "the creative treatment of actuality" as John Grierson defines it), these are appealing places to realize you can and will.


As I attempted to grapple with what I saw on display in "The Imposter" I concluded that people will believe what they want to believe, or maybe they do so in hopes of convincing others. The poster for "The Imposter" warns us, "There are two sides to every lie." Masterful films like "Rashomon" (still) and "The Social Network" (recently) present us with multiple perspective of a series of events. Some movies deliver a verdict for us, on others the jury is still out. I am glad both types are made, but there is something special about the open-ended questions. Not only does it give plenty to debate on the car ride home  or on the couch during the credits, it is something we can mull over ourselves in the following days, weeks, and years.

I have alluded to plentiful plot points in "The Imposter," but there is more to discover when you see the film for yourself. It is as engrossing a story as they come, presented in a nonlinear and nontraditional fashion. You need to know the rules to break the rules, Layton clearly knows this. So does Mr. Frédéric Bourdin or whoever he is passing himself as these days. To put a cork in it, "The Imposter" absolutely mustn't be overlooked.


CONTENT: strong language and mature elements

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