On June 13, 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappeared from his hometown of San Antonio, Texas. Being from a turbulent, working-class family, he received little attention from the media and it seemed that his family were the only ones who missed him (and they did so desperately). Imagine everyone’s surprise when Barclay was reported found three years later in Linares, Spain. Imagine their horror at the story he told of abduction, abuse and torture. Most importantly, imagine their relief that he was alive and returned to them. The relief of a sister. The relief of a mother.
Yet would this relief be powerful enough to overshadow troubling discrepancies? This is one of the core questions of director Bart Layton’s powerful documentary, The Imposter. Why didn’t it seem to bother the family that this found Nicholas had brown eyes instead of blue? Or that he spoke with a French accent?
It is no spoiler to say that The Imposter is the story of just that—an imposter named Frederic Bourdin who was a 23-year-old Frenchman masquerading as a 16-year-old American boy. That much is addressed in the opening minutes of this stunning film. What is more important, and what Layton explores to remarkable depths, is how exactly not only the boy’s family but the American authorities, media and public could be duped by what now seems a pathetic ruse. Layton presents us with the depths of sorrow of a family missing a child and to just what lengths they may unconsciously be willing to go to be reunited. He presents us with a society desperate for closure and for a happy ending. Most significantly, he presents us with a masterful and seductive con man in Bourdin, a man both in great need of love and in great fear of it.
The combination of a family’s sorrow with a con man’s wit is only one aspect of this film. As the story develops, as Layton doles out parcels of information, the whole tale begins to transform into a kind of modern noir. The story of The Imposter becomes a story of suspicion, secrets and the dark machinations of a troubled family.
The narrative style of The Imposter is as engaging as the byzantine story itself. Layton carefully manages just how much information we are given at any time. He elegantly layers reenactments with interviews, new cinematic panoramas and home video. He brilliantly interweaves Bourdin’s interview audio with the reenactments, often achieving truly chilling results.
The Imposter is most effective in the way it unravels this story, allowing us to fall under the spell of the undeniably charismatic Bourdin while we also distrust him. Layton leads us along discoveries and false trails with an FBI agent and an obsessed private detective. He gets us deep into the workings of Nicholas Barclay’s family, particularly his inscrutable mother and his mourning sister. At times, we understand their apparent denial. At times, it makes us wary and suspicious.
By the end of The Imposter, we have been put under the spell of Bourdin and come through the other side. Our jaws have dropped when we learned of his background. We have hoped for answers; we have jumped to drastic conclusions. Most importantly, we have been reminded that, for all the bizarre, labyrinthine mystery presented to us and for all the fun we’ve had on the ride, at the end there is still a boy whose location and fate have never been determined.
Director: Bart Layton
Starring: Frederic Bourdin, Cary Gibson, Beverly Dollarhide, Charlie Parker, Nancy Fisher, Bryan Gibson
Release Date: July/August in select cities