***1/2 (out of four)
Pure and simple: See “The Imposter” and argue about it. This one’s a thinker that deserves the thought.
First-time feature director Bart Layton’s documentary depicts a story that’s bizarre at best and chilling at worst. In 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappeared from a park near his home in San Antonio. Forty months later, his sister, Carey Gibson, went to Spain to retrieve him after she received a call identifying a lost child as her brother.
That man, “The Imposter” makes clear early on, was not a teenage boy but 23-year-old Frederic Bourdin, elaborately concocting a ruse to re-start his life as someone else. His direct-to-the-camera testimony comprises much of the storytelling in “The Imposter,” which includes several re-enactments featuring actors portraying Frederic, Carey and others. Obviously, this guy’s a liar; how can we trust his account of a months-long ordeal, during which he was taken in by Nicholas’ family, who were supposedly convinced that this French-accented stranger was the kid they had lost?
In fact, Layton, sometimes recalling Errol Morris, invites and fosters disorientation. That treatment’s legitimate to the material. While not as revealing as “The Queen of Versailles,” “The Imposter” has an eerie feel not unlike the sense that private investigator Charlie Parker felt when encountering the man posing as Nicholas. Something just seemed off.
In “The Imposter,” the presence of re-enactment actors who look similar but not the same and the unusual, stylized nature of the real people’s accounts brings almost everything into question—other than the video footage of Frederic pulling the scam and eventually the local and national news picking up on the story, both during its cloudiness and after it was unraveled.
It’s hard not to want to know more, to find solid ground in a true story whose facts still have not all come to light. Yet this very busy, very unusual movie brings to mind “The Usual Suspects” as it explores the nature of investigations and the power of the mind to manipulate and deceive others and yourself.
Frederic eventually wonders if Carey or Nicholas’s mom, Beverly, ever actually believed that he was Nicholas. Somehow they went along with it for a while. All we have are their explanations, as well as the bewilderment of many, including FBI officials. The group of those perplexed and fascinated by this story will only continue to grow.
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