The Imposter tells a story so emotionally complicated and absurd that I’m still not entirely sure that I understand what happened. Documentaries are about truth, and the better they portray that truth, the more resonant they are. Unfortunately, truth can be incredibly messy. It’s clouded by ambiguity and human foibles – and it’s often uncertain. Thus the most “truthful” documentaries are often the least satisfying when it comes to delivering tidy narratives. Errol Morris is a master of capturing the messiness of truth, and this doc is very much working in his precedent. While director Bart Layton may not be up to Morris’s snuff, his subject helps him. It’s a situation so extraordinary that it could only be told this way (someone made a fictional film about the same story, from what I’ve heard it was terrible).
In 1993, thirteen-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappeared on route back to his San Antonio home. After three years of heartsick, his family received incredible news: he had been found alive… in Spain. His eyes were now brown instead of blue. His hair was now black instead of blond. His ears were different. He couldn’t speak without a French accent. And yet Nicholas’s sister Carey accepted that he was who he claimed to be, and took him home. His mother welcomed him back with open, grateful arms.
It wasn’t really Nicholas. That’s not a twist, and it wouldn’t be even if the movie had a different title. It’s established very early on, because The Imposter is speaking to the audience about why and how he did what he did. I don’t see any version of this story that successfully makes it a twist that “Nicholas” was a fraud. The movie draws tension from a different source. We are with the con man, seeing his point of view as the net draws ever tighter around him and his lies unravel.
But the doc’s philosophical meat comes from the question of how those lies ever worked in the first place. It seems excruciatingly obvious to us that the “boy” in Spain was a liar. And yet the family took him in. They ignored the massive physical discrepancies between the person they lost and the person they found, accepting fantastical tales of child sex rings and scientific torture as explanation. My audience couldn’t stop laughing at these people, but this isn’t a funny film in the least. It’s just that there’s no easy way to react to this level of real-life absurdism, and laughter feels like the closest approximation.
The movie certainly isn’t holding the mother, sister, and others up to ridicule. It allows them to have their say (alongside a few others, including an awesomely ridiculous private investigator), and tries to help us understand and empathize with them. Despite all the laughter, this is a desperately sad story. These people suffered such a pain that they were more than willing to accept a relief from it, no matter what it was. They fooled themselves as much as The Imposter did. What emerges here is a fascinating study of how much what we want to be true can shape our worldview and how much that conviction can silence all doubts and protestations. Government officials either delayed or failed to act on glaring problems in this situation because of the actions of the family.
But the persuasive powers of The Imposter should not be underestimated. There’s something else going on in the doc as well. In a movie about how thorny the capital-T Truth is to suss out, he stands as an almost archetypical master of lies, and he pulls his own kind of con on the audience even as he explains his con on the family of Nicholas Barclay. He’s a riveting character, at turns witty, even almost charming, and repulsive. The man lies as easy as he breathes, but everything sounds plausible in the moment.
And that’s the root of the film’s masterstroke. It can prognosticate all the little details of how people could accept a staggeringly implausible untruth it wants, but it’s much more effective to demonstrate. The Imposter leads you to believe one thing, only for the movie to bluntly remind you that he’s a lying bastard. It ends on a hauntingly disorienting note that leaves you wondering whether anyone has said anything honest.
The film imitates Errol Morris in more than just subject matter. It makes extensive use of reenactment, which allows for a tremendous amount of control over the doc’s atmosphere. The Imposter is exceedingly sinister, dark and beautiful to look at, with a pervasive undercurrent of nausea. Layton plays with perspective, filming The Imposter with a much closer lens than other interviewees, blending the words he says into the reenactments as dialogue. Like The Thin Blue Line, it uses these fabricated segments to portray different scenarios as understood by the people in it, and it revels in the subjectivity and ambiguity at play.
The Imposter is enthralling, bewildering, enraging, and unforgettable. By the time it’s over, you may end up with more questions than you started with. The fact that this doesn’t feel artistically unsatisfying, even if it may feel like a visceral letdown, is a testament to the skill with which the film is constructed. This is documentary as pulp mystery at its very best, with some probing ideas built into it. The Imposter himself is possibly the greatest nonfiction protagonist I’ve seen since Timothy Treadwell. The film named for him more than lives up to his bizarre, unique, uniquely bizarre story.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
Check out Dan’s website: Day of Docs