A typical documentary seeks to uncover truths about a given subject, be it the war in Iraq, a renegade graffiti artist, or the status of the American education system. “The Imposter” does exactly this, but not in the way that the viewer first expects. Director Bart Layton takes a traditional mystery premise and turns it into an illuminating look into the mind of a profoundly afflicted man.
The chain of events documented in “The Imposter” began with the 1994 disappearance of a 13-year-old San Antonio boy named Nicholas Barclay. Three years later, Nicholas’ family received notice from Spanish police that their son had been found by tourists and was ready to return home. However, the person who claimed to be Nicholas was physically different, spoke with a French accent, and looked far older than their son would have been. The crux of the film is that Nicholas was impersonated by a 23-year-old French con artist who was desperate for the love and attention usually afforded a teenage boy by his family.
The major twist (and attraction) of “The Imposter” is that its primary subject is not Nicholas, but this unnamed con artist. Rather than showing the audience the saga of a family’s trauma, Layton instead focuses on the anxieties and thrills of a man who knew exactly the extent of the wrongs he was committing — and still forged onward. Layton shoots the interviews with the con artist in extreme close-up, as if literally to plunge the viewer into the man’s mind. The con artist is frank about the excitement he derived from deceiving Nicholas’ family, as well as the moral quandary into which he immersed himself. Several times throughout the film, he recalls pondering, “What the fuck have I done?” Audiences will undoubtedly share in this bewilderment, while they sit bewitched by the man’s undeniable charisma.
Layton also spends time with Nicholas’ sister, brother-in-law, and mother, who relay their feelings about this bizarre story chronologically, as the events are dramatized in accompanying reenactments. Nicholas’ sister is the film’s sympathetic figure, as Layton concentrates on her passion and commitment to believing that her brother had returned, in spite of the obvious signs pointing to the contrary. Nicholas’ mother is far less relatable and comes across as a true enigma. When the con artist implicates her as a conspirator, her tangible psychological distance makes the viewer believe that she may be culpable.
Bucking the cinema verité style of most documentaries, Layton’s use of reenactments gives “The Imposter” the feel of a thriller, heightening the stranger-than-fiction nature of the material. Layton dramatizes the scenes of the con artist preparing for his role as Nicholas by using actual actors, without the burden of the low production values of a History Channel special. During these segments, the filmmaker employs moody, shadowy lighting to express the shadiness of the con artist’s actions and often positions the camera behind the head of the con artist while the real man provides voice-over, as if to place the viewer directly inside the perverse mind of a criminal. This effect is intensified when Layton synchronizes the voice of the real con artist with that of the actor playing him. By the end of the film, the audience feels as though they have experienced the con artist’s thought-process, even if they don’t fully understand it.
In addition to probing into the brain of a warped man, “The Imposter” is enjoyable for its myriad of unforeseeable narrative twists and turns, which will go unspoiled here. Layton simultaneously maintains storytelling momentum while keeping the viewer in the dark about the truth of Nicholas’ disappearance. Ultimately, what emerges is the age-old question of whether it is possible to believe anything as completely true. The greatest virtue of Layton’s presentation of this unbelievable—but factual—story is that it conveys this message through subtlety and nuance, not by wielding a sledgehammer.