(WARNING: The following review goes into detail about the story behind this film. It is this writer’s opinion that The Imposter is best experienced knowing as little as possible going in, so if you want the best viewing experience you can get, please stop reading now and watch the movie. It’s awesome. But if you don’t mind spoilers or have already seen the film, feel free to read on.)
Among the marks I hope to make in my lifetime is doing away with the stigma of the documentary. I’d love for nothing more than to see stricken from the public consciousness the genre’s association with crusty educational film strips and PSAs that are due for a good Rifftrax at any moment. Life has loads of strange stories to tell, and The Imposter is one of them. You’re aware from the outset that this film is not to be trusted, yet half the pleasure of watching it involves your willingness to be played. Saying too much about The Imposter is easy to do, so if a simple “wow” isn’t enough of an endorsement, I don’t know what is.
In 1994, Nicholas Barclay vanished without a trace from San Antonio, Texas. Three years of searching and praying yielded no results for the boy’s family, until they received one fateful phone call. Not only has a teenaged Nicholas been apparently found alive and well, he’s turned up in Spain, of all places. Regardless of this odd turn of events, the family is ecstatic and welcomes him back with open arms…a move not entirely wise. As it turns out, “Nicholas” is actually Frederic Bourdin, a 23-year-old Frenchman whose little white lie to get out of the rain snowballed into assuming a missing child’s identity. But the deeper Frederic ingratiates himself into Nicholas’ world, the more complex his fibs become, giving him less and less room to escape when the authorites catch wind of his deception.
The Imposter is the essence of Alfred Hitchcock’s oft-repeated definition of suspense; every minute is spent just waiting for the proverbial bomb to go off under the table. As a grieving family unknowingly takes in a complete stranger, you can only wonder when, if, and how Frederic’s cover will be blown. Interviews with Bourdin himself and Nicholas’ relatives are featured amidst dramatic re-creations of the whole weird affair, assaulting the viewer with confusion on all fronts. How could these people be fooled by someone who, at first glance, bears a mild at best resemblance to their lost loved one? Why would Frederic commit so much of himself to his ruse? Answers are given, but the truth is always in flux, with the possibility of being conned lurking around every revelation.
The trick with The Imposter is that you’re never really sure of which side to take. Frederic is a charmer who can act innocent with the best of them, but what comes to light about his background casts doubt over everything that comes out of his mouth. You sympathize with Nicholas’ family because of the deceit hoisted upon them, but you start wondering who’s not saying what when the question of what did happen to Nicholas is raised. Okay, so that last bit comes across as something of a conspiracy theory that’s not delved into too deeply; ultimately, the film favors the victims, and it’s not the least bit surprising to learn that Frederic is no stranger to fraud. But that an element of mistrust is introduced and effectively developed at all is a triumph. This thing has you second-guessing yourself exactly when it wants to.
The Imposter is one of the most well-crafted, compelling, and attention-grabbing documentaries I’ve seen in a while. More than just putting a pre-existing whopper of a story onscreen, it does so with a breed of manipulation that’s a bitch to master. But sporadic bumps aside, The Imposter nails it, so great as to make you curse the thought of someone attempting a fictionalized remake.