In 1994, a young boy named Nicholas Barclay disappeared from his San Antonio, Texas neighborhood without a trace. All attempts to locate Nicholas proved futile and eventually the police stopped looking. Almost three and a half years later, the Barclay family received the call they had always hoped for but never expected: Nicholas had been found in Spain. Nicholas’ sister immediately flew to Spain, identified her brother, and brought him home where the family attempted to assimilate him back into their lives. It was a made-for-TV tale that suffered from only one problem: it wasn’t true. The man claiming to be 16 year old Nicholas was actually 23 year old Frederic Bourdin, a French fugitive wanted by Interpol for countless counts of identity fraud. The story only gets wilder from there as Bourdin, with his lie unraveling around him, begins to suspect the family may know where the real Nicholas is after all.
Told through the eyes (and words) of Bourdin himself, The Imposter is far more riveting than most of the thrillers that have come down the chute in recent years. The audience is made aware of the vague outline of the story (including Bourdin’s deception) right off the top and yet Bart Layton is still able to keep the suspense alive by presenting the material in a dark and twisty way. My heart was racing throughout the bulk of the film as Bourdin laid out his plan and the many ways in which it went awry. You get a great sense of the type of person Bourdin is and I found myself feeling sorry for him even though what he did to this family was appalling. Here’s a guy who received no love or affection as a child and has been permanently hamstrung as a result. He would make a fascinating case study for any psychologist and The Imposter serves as a sample of such a study.
Bourdin, however, isn’t the only one who could be examined in a psych class. The Barclay family is almost just as interesting. Nicholas’ mother, Beverly Dollarhide, and sister, Carey Gibson, accepted Bourdin unquestioningly, despite the fact that he looked nothing like Nicholas and spoke with a serious accent. In the film’s final moments, Dollarhide makes mention of the fact that throughout this ordeal, she simply tried not to think in order to preserve her belief that her son had returned. To be honest, no one in the Barclay clan comes off as particularly bright but even they had to have questions deep down, questions that they buried immediately. It took an investigation by newsman Charlie Parker to bring any real suspicion to the case and only Nicholas’ brother, Jason, seemed in the least concerned that Bourdin wasn’t who he said he was, which in turn led to a wildly speculative but wholly engrossing tangent that consumes the film’s final act.
There’s one real problem with The Imposter and that is the absurd amount of production value added in to “spice things up.” There are dramatizations and strange scene changes as well as an overexposure of Parker, who comes across as a sleazy reporter only one step up from a paparazzo. I’m a fan of the straight forward approach to documentary filmmaking and in this case that technique would have been much more fitting. The Imposter is a gripping story that doesn’t need any dressing up to make it worthwhile. The dramatizations in particular are a waste of time and serve no purpose other than to make the film seem like something that could be found on basic cable rather than a feature length documentary. Still, this is such a wild and engrossing tale that I found myself on the edge of my seat and thoroughly locked in on the events as they unfolded.
The Imposter Director: Bart Layton Cast: Frederic Bourdin, Beverly Dollarhide, Charlie Parker Rated: R (language, serious intensity) Recommended For: Anyone who likes a good mystery, ages 13+