Editor’s note: With The Imposter hitting limited theaters this week, here is a re-run of our SXSW review, originally published on March 13, 2012.
Sometime around the halfway mark of Bart Layton’s The Imposter, I became aware of the fact that I was watching the movie with my eyes wide as saucers. Even with a strong grasp of the film’s subject matter, it’s hard not to be totally blown away by what plays out on-screen, to become gape-mouthed in the face of so much (hyperbole aside) insanity. Much like Sundance favorite Compliance, the film focuses on the extreme limits of human fallibility and a true story that is so exceedingly unbelievable that it feels like it cannot possibly be true – but it is.
In 1994, a thirteen-year-old boy named Nicholas Barclay disappeared while on his way home from playing with his friends in San Antonio, Texas. Three years later, a French con artist named Frédéric Bourdin placed a prank phone call to the police in a small Spanish town, claiming to be a man who had found an American child who had been abducted. When the police arrived, it was Frédéric Bourdin who huddled in the phone booth, clad in oversized clothing and a baseball cap pulled low. Bourdin was taken to an orphanage, where he went about constructing a lie so fantastic and revolting that only the most cunning of con artists and the most deviant of human beings would even consider it for a moment.
Bourdin claimed to be Barclay. At the time, Bourdin was twenty-three-years-old (while Barclay would have been only sixteen) with dark hair, eyes, and skin (Nicholas Barclay had blond hair, blue eyes, and pale skin). He spoke with a French accent. He refused to speak to his sister Carey when the authorities contacted her. But, somehow, he managed to convince both Spanish and American officials that he was Bourdin. And, somehow, he convinced Carey that he was Nicholas – to the point that she packed him up and brought him back to Texas with her.
And that’s not even the weirdest part of The Imposter.
Layton has constructed his film with various interviews (including with Nicholas’ family, Bourdin himself, and a number of officials involved with the case) and very creative reenactments of events. It’s reminiscent of something like Clio Barnard’s The Arbor, which also utilized a trick that The Imposter pulls – using voiceovers from interviews in his reenactments, adding a layer of veracity to created situations. While the film’s style eventually settles into itself, it’s such a striking way to tell the tale, and one with so many moving pieces, that it feels overproduced for the first third of the film. Whereas The Arbor took its time to introduce its audience to its storytelling conceit, The Imposter doesn’t allow a similar breaking-in period. Additionally, Anne Nikitin’s score is overly cinematic and frequently just flat-out overbearing, and it detracts from the film’s ability to feel like it’s rooted in the real world.
Fortunately, Layton overcomes most of those issues in the film’s final third, hitting a solid stride that allow the film’s true star – the story – to shine.
The Upside: An unbelievable true story told in an engaging and inventive manner.
The Downside: The film’s storytelling style occasionally detracts from the film’s meat, and it takes time away from some of the film’s most important reveals.