The Imposter is one of the most intriguing yet unsatisfying life-is-stranger-than-fiction tales of 2012. It is riveting and engaging, yet just when it builds up suspicion to the point of insanity, it lets it go without a resolution, like the story at the heart of it.
This thriller documentary is centered around the disappearance of Nicholas Barclay, a 13-year-old boy from rural Texas, and his family trying to survive the pain of the event. After the boy vanished one day, the emotional f-word peppered family interviews reveal, the police wasn’t very helpful and pretty soon he was assumed dead.
Three and half years later, however, a dark-haired brown-eyed 23-year-old French con artist Frédéric Bourdin stole the identity of a blond blue-eyed Nicholas, against all odds successfully became an American citizen, was seamlessly integrated into the family of Nicholas and a local high school, for what he felt was a second chance.
The events of The Imposter are narrated by Bourdin himself, the mother of Nicholas, Beverly Dollarhide, and his sister Carey Gibson, in the most unreliable of narratives possible. Bourdin’s excuse for his serial charlatanism (500 false identities on his CV) is his unhappy childhood, and a teen mother who didn’t love him (if you are rolling your eyes, don’t feel guilty). But who are the real monsters here? The Barclays’ don’t even give an excuse for swapping a complete stranger for their missing family member so easily, without a question, without a shadow of a doubt. There are darker secrets in this story than the ones that seem apparent at first glance, but this yarn has no closure, and the ending on an uncertain note may unnerve some viewers, even though it is probably intentional.
Psychology lovers will rejoice to take the trip into the mind of a professional brainwasher Bourdin, who mostly assumed the identities of children and learnt how to manipulate adults around him to almost complete perfection. When playing a child victim, Bourdin recoils from touch, speaks little, hides his face, acts like a terrified animal – to engender guilt in the adults, render them vulnerable, to make them see things that aren’t there. This is a chilling look into a soul that harbors nothing but selfish interest and absolutely no regard for others. It’s also terrifying to see how this cheap ‘act’ is bought time and time again when thousands of kids who are really abused out there are ignored by official systems that are supposed to protect them all over the world. I haven’t felt such horror since the dystopian Looper.
No wonder The Imposter was shortlisted for a best doc Oscar (but didn’t survive the final cut, unfortunately). The director Bart Layton perfectly creates a dark atmosphere of a classic American gothic tale with the help of the eerie talking heads, Anne Nikitin’s spooky soundtrack and dimly lit dramatic sequences (Adam O’Brian plays Frédéric Bourdin in those). The photos of the real Nicholas, blond, smiling, happy, create a hollow space, a perpetual void, as if he is a hovering ghost over the movie, never allowed to speak his version of events; and that empty space is never filled. This documentary is a question mark, if anything else; it questions the definition of truth, including the multiple truths it puts forward itself.
To begin with, it is disappointing that this riveting story is not coming in Blu-ray, and the DVD 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation of The Imposter is not enough to compensate for that lack. The picture suffers from a lack of sharpness and definition, which could be a problem for Blu-ray purists but was OK for me because I felt the strong story and the extra features made up for the lack of technical perfection. The soundtrack both in Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0. worked OK.
“Making The Imposter” (41:30) is a solid documentary that discusses the connection and transition between the documentary itself to the dramatized sequences, the use of scripted scenes and storyboards. These aspects of The Imposter may start a heated discussion about the purity or objectivity of narration but the dramatization of the past events does add to the whole experience; without them it would be just another TV thriller doc. “Making The Imposter” also discusses the problem of casting the family, choosing the actors, providing an adequate score for a documentary of this kind, and giving weight to multiple viewpoints and versions of events.
The traditional original theatrical trailer for The Imposter is offered on the DVD pack but the audio commentary and deleted scenes are absent. As a bonus, however, there is a QR code that takes you to a website with a PDF file containing police and FBI files about the case of Nicholas Barclay. (This is all great stuff but it is somewhat strange that the makers of this extra feature didn’t think of the users who don’t own smartphones or barcode scanners).
Verdict: The Imposter is a disturbing look into the human soul, and especially its darkest, most hidden corners. It is a must-see documentary of 2012, and a riveting mystery that will probably never be solved.