(2011)3.5Jason BuchananIf The Imposter was presented as a feature film with a traditional narrative rather than a documentary, odds are most viewers would dismiss it as laughably improbable. With twists that feel like they've been gleaned from the pages of a pulpy page-turner, implausibilities that seem as if they were whipped-up by a half-baked mystery novelist, and a compelling emotional arc that will leave many (especially parents) feeling as if they've been run through a wringer, the movie uses handsomely shot reenactments to draw us in before allowing the actual participants to weave a story that can only be classified as too strange for fiction.
San Antonio, Texas: 1994. A 13-year-old boy named Nicholas Barclay vanishes without a trace after going out to play basketball at a local park. As the clues quickly run cold, his grieving family fears the worst. Three years later, in Linares, Spain, police receive an anonymous call from a pair of tourists who say they have found a frightened teenage boy. After being taken into custody by the authorities, the volatile youth claims to be none other than Nicholas, and the process of reuniting him with his family gets underway. Having allegedly been abducted and tortured by the military, he miraculously appears to be in good health. Yet his answers are always vague, and his mannerisms are skittish. His tattoos match those of the missing teen, but that's just about where the resemblance ends. Meanwhile, Nicholas' older sister Carey travels to Spain to bring him back home. Unsurprisingly, his family welcomes him back with open arms. All the while, no one -- not Nicholas' family nor the FBI agent assigned the case -- seems to recognize the deception taking place right before their very eyes.
It's hard to imagine the horror any family must feel when a loved one simply disappears, but in the haunting opening scenes of The Imposter, the defeated look in Nicholas' mother's and sister's eyes speaks volumes. Meanwhile, mere minutes into the film, another side of the story comes into focus as 26-year-old Frédéric Bourdin recalls the carefully calculated measures he took to trick the authorities into believing he was Nicholas in a bid to start a new life. Appearing to relish the opportunity to tell his unlikely tale, Bourdin's enthusiasm stands in stark contrast to the Barclays' sunken sense of desperation, creating a compelling dynamic that reverberates through the entire film.
Director Bart Layton displays a considerable talent for pacing and tone, allowing key revelations to hang in the air just long enough to let us identify with both the perpetrator and his victims, and offering cinematic reenactments that give the documentary the look of a hybrid feature. Although we know Bourdin's deception will ultimately be revealed, Layton's techniques allow us to revel in the suspense of precisely how it will happen without undermining the inherent tragedy of the real-life drama. Likewise, the director's smart use of music -- in particular 16 Horsepower's version of the traditional American folk song "Wayfaring Stranger" -- is both atmospheric and functional.
As with any documentary, half of the success lies within finding a subject or situation that's inherently fascinating. With his first feature doc, Layton proves himself not only adept at seeking out such true-life tales, but also telling them with the flair of a naturally gifted storyteller.