Committing a crime for money makes sense to people. But when someone pulls off an elaborate, astonishing crime for no monetary gain, it can be baffling. Bart Layton‘s documentary The Imposter tells one of these such cases. It’s a shocking, damn near unbelievable true story filled with more twists and shocking secrets than a conventional thriller. Perhaps even more shocking is that it wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award. Anyways, more about The Imposter‘s DVD after the jump.
In June 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay went out to play basketball with his friends in San Antonio, TX. He never returned home and as the years went on, the Barclay family lost hope. Then in 1997 they got a call from authorities who told them that Nicholas had surfaced in southern Spain. When he was flown back to the U.S., instead of being greeted by their blue-eyed, Texas born and raised Nicholas, the family was met with a brown-eyed, apprehensive man who could not speak without a French accent. Despite the inconsistencies in his appearance, they accepted their long-lost “son” into their home and there he lived for nearly five months.
Nicholas told the FBI that he had been captured and brought into an international child prostitution ring. He explained that he was constantly raped and forced to speak French. As authorities continued to dig deeper, Nicholas’ claims quickly unraveled. Turns out this man wasn’t Nicholas. He was 23-year-old Frédéric Bourdin, a French serial imposter. Honest mistake.
It’s actually Bourdin who comes forward to a private investigator and squawks about his true identity. But why would he blow his own cover? He knew authorities were catching onto him, sure, but he could’ve just fled like he’s done his whole life. Or maybe the Barclay family had a secret darker than a French fugitive impersonating their missing son.
I first heard about this case in journalist David Grann‘s 2010 essay collection “The Devil and Sherlock Holmes.” I n the essay, Grann touches on a piece of the puzzle left out of The Imposter, involving Nicholas’ older brother. It adds another dimension to the alleged Barclay family secret, so anyone really hip to the film should check out the book.
Director Layton (whose previous work includes various TV documentaries) compiles a downright riveting tale of deception and human nature. Moody dramatizations are mixed in with interviews and news footage. The Barclay family, including Ma Barclay, participate. They present themselves as betrayed innocents free of any blame. Sister Barclay is particularly defensive. She seems downright embarrassed. I have a little sympathy for Bourdin, who was basically disowned by his mother at a young age. But the Barclays took in someone who was clearly not their son. Then again, it’s impossible to put yourself in their shoes. After years of grief and fear, maybe they wanted it to be Nicholas so bad they would’ve taken anyone in. Then again…
The most fascinating interview subject is, of course, Bourdin himself. He never seems malicious or self-centered, but he’s certainly not sympathetic towards the Barclays. Thanks in part to the film, he’s the world’s most infamous impersonator – a reputation gained by habitually impersonating children for absolutely no aims at wealth. In my book, that’s infinitely more fascinating than Jesse James or any of America’s other celebrated criminals. His smile will haunt you for weeks.
The Imposter is presented by Indomina Films in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen – available on DVD only. The primary bonus feature is the terrific “Making The Imposter” (41:00), which makes up for a lack of audio commentary. It’s an exhaustive behind the scenes look that’s as subjective as the film. There’s also a QR code on the disc that allows users to access a PDF document featuring FBI and police files. I don’t own a smartphone (since I’m in front of a laptop all day) so I couldn’t access them. But for those who do, have fun.