The Imposter is the kind of film that, because of how well it is made and precisely it is executed, has the rare ability of redefining the documentary art form. At 99 minutes long, there isn’t a wasted sentence of juxtaposition or faltered cut in editing – everything works and flows as well as any recounted documentary of recent memory. It is, in a word, revelatory.
Bart Layton’s film (which, for the record, will certainly be on the shortlist for Oscar consideration) tells the story of how a teenage Texas boy resurfaced in Spain after disappearing three years earlier.
In fact, we’re hit with it quite earlier – the discovered person isn’t Nicholas Barclay at all, but rather Frédéric Bourdin, a 23-year-old con artist who had spent the better part of his life escaping the law by pretending to be someone he’s not. In this case, Bourdin, through a set of miraculous coincidences that I dare not reveal here, saw an opportunity to become Nicholas, and went all in. The result is a story of equal parts humor and delusional curiosity. As in, we’re curious as to how Nicholas’ family could be so goddamn delusional. And then things begin to click.
Or do they?
That’s the beauty of this film, its story is told from the perspectives of a handful of people, many of whom we learn we shouldn’t fully trust. Bourdin, for example, is a wonderfully dynamic storyteller. His unreserved candidness in retelling his tale is wholly refreshing; there isn’t a shred of pretense to be had here. The man has nothing to gain by lying, so why not tell the truth? Good question, one that I don’t think applies to Bourdin’s moral complexity, which is precisely what he has in common with Nicholas’ family.
Do me a favor, if you have pictures available, put a shot of yourself when you were 13 next to a picture of yourself when you were 16. See much difference? Sure, puberty undoubtedly took hold, but you can still see you, right? So then, tell me how in the hell Nicholas’ family bought in to the notion that Bourdin was Nicholas?
Enter Charlie Parker, a private investigator who bleeds Texas through and through. Parker smelled rat from the get-go, and was one of the first people to expose Bourdin for who he was. But once the dust settled, Parker sought to reveal a bigger question: how does a family not recognize one of their own?
So, in short, The Imposter is one hell of an exquisitely layered documentary that never gives you more information than you need to know. It reveals the prefect cards at the prefect time.
Many documentarians are taught to follow the same basic instructions of answering who, what, where, when, why and how. To put it simply: The Imposter does this, and then some.
“Why” may be one that we’ll never fully know. But either way, Charlie Parker is still digging. A