Sundance 2012: THE IMPOSTER Review

     January 29, 2012

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Never underestimate the power of a good dramatization.  The reenactment has taken on comic connotations due to its incompetent, lazy use on networks like The History Channel, but when used correctly, it can be an absolute powerhouse of documentary storytelling.  With his feature debut, The Imposter, director Bart Layton has delivered one of the best thrillers in years and it’s a documentary.  Layton’s mastery of dramatization ratchets up the intensity and fascination for a truly bizarre and disturbing case.  His only mistake is being so good at his job that we start to wonder if he’s mirroring his main character by trying to pull one over on the audience.

On June 13, 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay went missing.  A San Antonio resident, Nicholas was listed as a missing person for the next three years until his family heard incredible news: Nicholas had been found in Spain.  In actuality, it was 23-year-old Frédéric Bourdin who claimed he was the missing teenager in order to stay in a shelter.  When Spanish officials wanted to know about the mysterious “16-year-old” they had found wandering the streets, Bourdin managed to secretly dig into the files of missing children, found Barclay’s name, and stole his identity.  As Nicholas’ sister was flying over to greet her long-lost “brother”, Bourdin had to change his appearance, come up with an explanation why Nicholas’ blue eyes were now brown, and find a way to manipulate everyone he met.  For a time, it actually worked.

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Layton intelligently determined that the only way to tell Bourdin’s absurd and darkly comic story was with heavy use of reenactments.  More importantly, the dramatizations had to match the intensity of the real-life events.  Layton draws us into events like Bourdin’s frantic attempt to bleach his hair and figure out how he can fool Nicholas’ sister.  The dramatizations even have their actors mouth the dialogue currently being spoken by the real-life, talking-head counterpart.  The technique further pulls the interviews closer with the larger-than-life cinematic reenactments.

With the audience wrapped up in the drama, we can better understand how Bourdin had everyone fooled.  Granted, half the work had already been done for him.  The Barclays, understandably, desperately wanted to believe that Nicholas had come back to them, and so they suspended their disbelief.  These weren’t stupid people.  They were people who saw what they wanted to see and met a man who knew exactly what to show them.  Luck was a factor, but Bourdin’s skill at manipulation was superhuman.  He knew when to stay quiet, how to listen, and when to tell people what they wanted to hear.

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Bourdin is such a fascinating creature that we can’t look away, but his actions are wholly despicable and indisputably cruel.  However, since the theme is about people deceiving each other and themselves, The Imposter almost turns in on itself.  The movie isn’t trying to preach a warning, but the viewer starts to thinks, “Are these the real people in the talking-head interviews or are they actors reciting interview testimony?  Are we being fooled by appearances?”  The reenactments are designed to put us in the headspace of the interviewee, but we’re drawn in so deep that we want to question everything, which unintentionally causes us to become slightly detached from the experience.

There are con men and then there’s Frédéric Bourdin.  Selfish, manipulative, and hard-hearted as he may be, his despicable actions are worthy of a fantastic documentary like this one.  The film is even willing to bring him a little sympathy as we see how he’s deluding himself (or he’s trying to make us sympathize with him—it’s impossible to trust the motives of someone who’s greatest skill is lying).  By interviewing people other than Bourdin, Layton establishes a base-level of truth where we know that not everything presented in the movie is a fabrication.  But even if it were, The Imposter would still be a dizzying, exhilarating thriller.

Rating: A-

For all of our coverage of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, click here.  Also, here are links to all of my Sundance reviews so far:

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