“Creepy,” “fascinating” and “mind-boggling” are some of the words critics have used to describe Bart Leyton’s documentary The Imposter. As different as these adjectives are, most of the movie’s audience — as the favorable critic and audience polls on Rotten Tomatoes prove — agree that it is gripping and thought provoking, making it one of the year’s most highly acclaimed documentaries. Yet, as we all know, sometimes expectations lead to disappointments. Such was my experience with the film when I saw it this week at Cinemapolis.
The Imposter details the bizarre case of 13-year-old Texan boy Nicholas Barclay and his disappearance. More than three years after he goes missing, a boy shows up across the globe in Linares, Spain, claiming to be Nicholas. He tells the police the gruesome circumstances in which he was abducted and tortured. The problem is that this person looks conspicuously different from the Nicholas that went missing — his hair color, demeanor and even accent have changed drastically. The man is later identified as French citizen and serial imposter Frédéric Bourdin. The family nonetheless embraces the new Nicholas and welcomes him into their home, citing the conditions in which Nicholas lived for three years as the reason behind his not-so-subtle transformations.
The film alternates between real-life interviews with people directly related to the case — including Bourdin himself — and reenactments of the events. At the start of the movie, I expected the discovery of Bourdin’s real identity to be the climax of the film. Surprisingly enough, that is not the case, for we see a grinning, brazen Bourdin at the start of the movie. Even then, something about his character definitely seems off — Bourdin does not appear to be a broken man guilty for what he has done but instead talks with an air of arrogance. His braggadocio renders the audience uncomfortable.
Bourdin recounts his childhood abandonment by his Algerian father, citing it as the reason behind his craving for attention. The audience then discovers that Bourdin’s arrival in the U.S. is more accidental than intended. He merely wanted to impersonate an orphan and live the life of a happy child. However, the insistence of the Spanish authorities made it imperative that Bourdin actually find a specific identity. He thinks on the spot, so when forced into a corner, he manages to fool those with (purportedly) the most discerning eyes: the American Embassy and officials in charge of the case. The unraveling of plot itself is not the most startling part; rather, the power of deceit as displayed by Bourdin and the joke that he makes of the American government become the major topics of the film.
Throughout the process of Bourdin stealing Nicholas Barclay’s identity, only a handful ever questions the validity of his claim. The U.S. Embassy in Madrid is so concerned with getting a lost “American” boy home safely and promptly that it overlooks the most fundamental question of whether or not the boy presented to them is actually who he claims to be. The Barclay family is overjoyed and readily takes Bourdin in as their lost son, despite the fact that he looks nothing like Nicholas. One would think that, though it has been three years, such drastic differences would not be overlooked by those closest to Nicholas. Even Bourdin himself expects to be “beat up” due to the agony caused the grieving family. The only ones to remotely question Bourdin’s real identity are the Spanish government, an FBI agent assigned to the case and a private investigator. Their combined effort at the end unnerves Bourdin, who turns the table on his “family” and accuses them of having killed Nicholas.
The plot twist toward the end of the film becomes the biggest shock and the climax of the documentary. Nevertheless, it is where the director takes an otherwise unimpressive movie in an even worse direction. Whereas Bourdin’s interview scenes at the start of the film are more or less intriguing to the audience, by the end of the film, it becomes apparent that he is a man plagued by a psychiatric condition, perhaps as a result of his disturbed childhood. He becomes a sickening presence on the screen. The twist only exists because of Bourdin’s accusation, which is untrustworthy, as the director should know better than anybody else. However, as a result of the twist, the movie now lacks a resolution and its point gets lost as the audience is confronted with an ambiguous ending, where the question of whether the family was involved in the murder remains unanswerable.
For a documentary that critics have raved about for the past 10 months, The Imposter fails to impress me. The film provides much food for thought as it touches upon deceit, grief and our instincts to doubt and believe. However, the motifs jumble under Bourdin’s smug narration and Leyton’s overemphasized reenactments. Even though it is not Leyton’s fault that the case remains unsolved, the fact that he chooses to expand on Bourdin’s accusation makes the film even less fulfilling. The Imposter could be an interesting psychological springboard but, as a film, it does not deserve the hype it has received.
The Imposter is now playing at Cinemapolis.