THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS
It’s nothing new for a documentary or another form of nonfiction to play on an observer’s perception of truth as way to increase the engagement of a complex story. In some ways, every piece of supposed truth asks us to question the meaning of objectivity. However, F for Fake, Exit Through the Gift Shop, A Million Little Pieces, and even Fargo, are all striking examples of the kinds of social controversy and layered documentary approaches that can emerge from playing with perception. A con game seems like a perfect mirror for the documentary form since creating a false truth is the nature of these kinds of works. Rarely, however, do films take on con men of such deep emotional complexities as Bart Layton’s film, The Imposter. At once disgusting and magnetizing, the film at times struggles because of how adamantly it straddles the line between emotional character study and suspenseful ploy with difficult to believe twists.
Three years after a San Antonio boy named Nicholas Barclay goes missing, his family gets a call saying that he might have been found in Spain. Eager to believe their son has resurfaced, the family accepts notorious French imposter, Frédéric Bourdin (dubbed The Chameleon by French press), as their own. As state officials dig deeper into the case, they slowly discover that the imposter can’t possibly be Nicholas. Even after revealing their finds, officials are surprised to learn of the family’s lack of willingness to accept Frédéric as a fake. In its last act, the film takes a strange turn that unveils the family may have known of Frédéric’s ruse from the beginning, seeing his presence as a way to cover up vicious crimes of their own.
David Mamet’s House of Games comes to mind when considering the labyrinthine con game of The Imposter. Similar to Mamet’s film, The Imposter makes the viewer feel scammed just like those in the story. Yet, the characters of House of Games are as layered as the “games” they play, forcing an audience to look closer at the tricks and what makes them successful. Even after multiple viewings, it’s impossible to stay ahead of Mamet’s carefully constructed cons. The key is that they are believable. Not just because the characters believe them but because we, as observers, believe them too.
The Imposter comes from an opposite angle. Everything seems impossible and it’s only engaging because we must wonder how in the world these people could fall for this deception. What lets the film off the hook is that it abides by the notion that “most people who are fooled want to allow themselves to be fooled.” Only The Imposter brings this dynamic front and center, since what allows the French man to con the family is their own haunting con game about the whereabouts of their son. Of course, the film presents no evidence besides coincidence in indicting the Texan family for murder. It makes for compelling storytelling to twist the plot away from the false identity and into the psychology of mixed cover-up. But isn’t an indictment quite irresponsible without posing any real facts? Has the filmmaker fallen too far in love with the fictionalized version of his events to realize the damage this film may cause? And are we as viewers too willing, like the family initially seems to be, to accept accusations just because they are asserted? These questions add yet another layer of what truth and perception mean to nonfiction films like these.
Told in an Errol Morris-style of talking heads accompanied by cinematic recreations performed by both actors and those in the actual story, The Imposter stitches a fabric that jumps between reality and fantasy. However, unlike The Thin Blue Line, the dramatized reenactments never show precisely placed repetition or threads that are skillfully added to help draw the viewer into the story. Mostly, the dramatizations help walk us through the tale visually, thus, they never break free from the “cool” style-over-substance crutch built to be palatable for fiction-leaning audiences. Because the film must remain a cold con game, the emotions fall flat. By the final pointed “fuck you,” I was confused about what the story was actually trying to say about its people.
While the film abruptly shifts perspective from questioning the motives of the titular
“imposter” to the truth of this strange Texas family, we get a small sense of the “purpose” that Frédéric Bourdin states he feels from adapting the identity of another. Between helping (slightly) to illuminate the truth behind the case of Nicholas Barclay and his happy prison dance before the credits, we see a man who feels at home inside the skin of another person’s experience. While this particular story cradles him in a bizarre situation, one has to wonder if Frédéric’s disease (schizophrenia perhaps) has a tinge of good intentions.
In spite of what I read as a dubious journalistic agenda, The Imposter is one of the most fascinating films to come out this year. Dark, uneasy, and the kind of movie that forces you to live with its grimy human psychology for days after you view it, The Imposter delves into our fame-based culture to show how forgotten people can run cons because of ignorance and evil. Nobody can be faulted for hoping to make their story watchable, though I do think that the weak indictment of the Barclay family was the less intriguing part of this film. At the end of the movie, a high concept, and obviously staged, crane up over a private investigator attempting to dig up Nicholas Brody’s body stands as an acute representation of the film as a whole. It’s uncomfortable because of its staged quality and for forcing us to question perception both within the story and about it’s presentation. Yet, like the hole being dug, some viewers may find what’s inside to be empty. [B]
Directed by Bart Layton; cinematography by Erik Alexander Wilson and Lynda Hall; edited by Andrew Hulme; music by Anne Nikitin; produced by Dimitri Doganis;. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.
This was my favorite documentary of the year.
Great review, and good points about the story shift from the Imposter to the family.
It’s a difficult story to tell. I understand the intention to indict the family in the end, but that kind of charge needs far more backup for it not seem like defamation. I keep thinking either I missed something or there’s more to the story I should have known. From what I can remember, the film just charges the family with a crime and leaves it seeming like a distinct possibility. A really interesting film though. Certainly up there as one of my favorite documentaries as well.
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