On June 13, 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay went missing from his home outside San Antonio, Texas.
Nearly four years later, his family received a phone call from Linares, Spain, informing them that their son had been found, scared and confused; the U.S. Embassy made arrangements for the Barclays to reunite with him and bring him back home.
And that's exactly what happened: Nicholas' sister hopped on a plane, drove to the orphanage and embraced a reticent teenager who'd been changed profoundly by age and some unknown, unspeakable trauma.
How much had he changed? Nicholas Barclay was a blond-haired, blue-eyed Texan. And this guy was a 23-year-old Frenchman with brown eyes and dark hair. Look past a crude dye job, and it should have been obvious that they were dealing with a con man, but the sister accepted him, and the entire family followed in kind. It played out like a modern-day The Return of Martin Guerre, that classic French story about one man assuming another man's identity in a village after a war. One party wanted its missing family member back, and the other offered a fiction plausible enough for them to accept.
Or so it seems.
Bart Layton's fiendishly clever documentary The Imposter identifies this mysterious Frenchman right from the start. His name is Frederic Bourdin, a Talented Mr. Ripley type wanted by Interpol for serial identity theft, including other cases where he'd pretended to be a missing teenager.
Taking the form of Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line — or one of the many Unsolved Mysteries-type cable shows it inspired — Layton's corker of a tale mixes testimonials from Bourdin, the Barclays, various investigators and related figures with skillfully staged reenactments.
But where Morris (successfully) made the case to get his subject off Death Row, Layton leaves the audience to process his spring-loaded revelations on their own. This is a film about deception —the deception of others and the deception of self — and the real truth is left dangling.
Sporting a sly grin that's just this side of sinister, Bourdin makes a riveting subject, not least because he could still be an unreliable narrator. For Bourdin, the absurd charade of living with the Barclays was the result of a lie that kept on snowballing.
It was not out of character for him to pretend to be an orphaned teenager to secure a place in the local children's home, but the improvisation that led him to the Barclay case required another level of performance art. He was certain — for abundantly good reason — that he would be unmasked and sent to prison, but he stuck around San Antonio for months before a private investigator picked up the scent.
Beyond the clashing perspectives of Bourdin and the Barclays, who each get equal time in telling the story, the genius of The Imposter is that it's Bourdin who becomes the audience surrogate, rather than the family of the missing child. At every turn, Bourdin seems as astonished as we are that the Barclays accepted a 23-year-old Frenchman as their own flesh and blood, no matter his brilliance as a fraud. And when he starts to ask some questions about who the Barclays are, the plot thickens all the more.
Bourdin's incredible story has been told several times before — notably in David Grann's 2008 profile for The New Yorker and the little-loved feature film The Chameleon — but Layton's he said/they said approach has both terrifying and poignant resonances. "Oh what a tangled web we weave," the expression goes. When all parties practice to deceive, oh what a tangled web indeed. (Recommended)