On the surface The Imposter is one hell of a story, but it raises more questions than answers.
Bart Layton’s The Imposter relates a story that’s so bizarre it would be impossible to believe it was true. Of course, truth is stranger than fiction and The Imposter seems to reinforce that old saying. Using a hyper stylized look to complement the cinematic nature of the story, Layton creates a fast-paced and sometimes exciting look at one of the strangest cons ever committed. While the documentary’s stubborn approach to storytelling hinders it from exploring things further, The Imposter’s content is strong enough to carry things along.
The Imposter’s story starts in San Antonio, Texas where 13 year old Nicholas Barclay vanishes while walking home. Barclay is never found and everyone assumes the worst until, over three years later, a 16 year old boy is found by police huddling inside a phone booth in Spain. This boy claims to be Nicholas Barclay, and in no time Barclay’s sister has flown to Spain to take him back home. He tells the FBI that he was captured by men in the military and thrown into a sex trafficking ring where he was tortured until he finally escaped. Barclay comes back home to San Antonio where his family embraces him, with the story of his discovery getting national media coverage.
It may sound like a sad story with a happy ending, but The Imposter immediately reveals that the boy they found isn’t Nicholas Barclay. The imposter in the film’s title is actually Frédéric Bourdin, a 23 year old man who called around various police stations and missing persons hotlines in the states until he found an identity that sounded ripe for the taking. His actions are deplorable, but it would seem impossible for anyone to seriously believe what he’s saying. Barclay was blonde-haired with blue eyes, while Bourdin has brown eyes and dark hair. It would seem like his flimsy attempt at stealing someone’s identity would fall apart the moment Nicholas Barclay’s family would lay their eyes on him but, amazingly, they never raise any doubts.
The question of why Barclay’s family would see a 23 year old man with a distinct French accent and think it’s their 16 year old son is never really explored. Layton seems to be focused on nothing more than telling the story itself. Barclay’s relatives are interviewed but for the most part they do nothing more than give out enough information to keep things moving along. The film’s decision to reveal Bourdin’s scheme within the first five minutes loses some of the excitement that could have come along when an FBI agent and private investigator start explaining how the scam fell apart. Most of the excitement comes out of seeing how Bourdin was figured out (the private investigator’s explanation involving ears is fun to watch) but watching everyone play catch-up began to grow tiresome.
The Imposter starts to really crackle when some of the interview subjects offer a theory as to why the Barclays went along with letting a stranger pretend to be their son, but it’s short-lived when Layton starts cross-cutting to someone digging up a spot where they think Nicholas Barclay might be buried (you can easily guess if they found a body or not). On the surface The Imposter is one hell of a story, but it raises more questions than answers.