Starring Frédéric Bourdin, Carey Gibson, Beverly Dollarhide, Bryan Gibson, Codey Gibson, Nancy Fisher
Directed by Bart Layton
Expectations: High. Heard many good things.
Just about every movie would be better experienced free from too much prior knowledge, but The Imposter is a very intriguing documentary that almost hinges completely on the viewer knowing next to nothing going in. If you know too much, the slow reveal of information will seem ponderous and will lack a lot of punch. It’s not a perfect film — it does drag a bit here and there — but The Imposter successfully takes a documentary narrative and weaves in slick, cinematic dramatized scenes so well that it’s almost like watching a narrative film. Incredible and hard to believe, The Imposter is the type of story that proves the phrase, “Truth is stranger than fiction.”
So if you’re intrigued to see the movie, go watch it. It’s available on Netflix Instant for those in the US, making it a pretty quick and easy watch for a good many film fans. I’d recommend only reading further after watching the film, although I can’t stop you from clicking through to the full review. Enter at your own risk!
OK, so for those still with me, The Imposter tells the story of a missing kid from San Antonio named Nicholas Barclay. He went missing when he was 13 years old in 1993. Four years later, the family received a call from Spain. The person on the other end of the line said that they were from a juvenile group home and that they had Nicholas in their custody. Emotions welled up in Nicholas’s sister who took the call, and they promptly made arrangements to pick up their lost loved one. But the film is very obviously titled The Imposter, so we’re in on the ruse right from the get-go.
We hear from the family members on the return of Nicholas to their lives, and how they dealt with the fact that he looked completely different and had different color eyes. It seems rather preposterous that they would have ever believed him to be their lost son, but the power of belief — of wanting to believe — is a strong one. Even taking this into consideration, it’s hard to understand how this man speaking in an obvious French accent could ever have been taken for a native Texan, no matter what stories of trauma he spun to explain why he had changed so much and remembered nothing of his former life. It’s hard not to think that the family members are just flat-out dumb; how could anyone have actually believed this is the truth?
Herein lies the best thing about The Imposter. We come into this family’s struggle from a place of knowledge. The film is called The Imposter, and it features lengthy, candid interviews with Frédéric Bourdin, the man who impersonated Nicholas. So we almost immediately look down on the family as stupid because they can’t see the truth staring them in the face. The film continues in this manner before unleashing its final twist, the pièce de résistance that turns the tables on the audience and shows that the power to believe is just as strong within us (or at least within me!).
As humans, we have an inherent desire to want to believe what we hear, and to find a resolution to a story. I’m OK with ambiguous endings, but it’s always nice to know what happened. Documentaries are always tricky to close out well, as the story usually keeps on going. The Imposter is no different, but because of the nature of this particular story, the ambiguous ending begs us to reconsider the “facts” we were given. Memory reveals that a few of the key points were told to us directly by Frédéric. Even though the film is centered around the deception this man was able to carry out, the filmmakers subtly and slyly present us with something that is most likely also pure deception. But because it seems plausible, and we’re always in hopes of finding some resolution, we immediately reach for this thread as the “real” truth of the situation. I immediately understood the mindset that allowed the family to accept the imposter into their home.
But in this story, the only known truth is that Frédéric deceived the family of Nicholas Barclay, and that he has a history of lying about and assuming identities that aren’t his. The fact that a few of the people involved in the case developed an alternate, plausible theory doesn’t necessarily show that it’s the truth. It merely shows us that this is but one possibility in a very strange series of events that no one outside of a couple of people will ever know the truth to. And we must accept that. We may want resolution, we may grasp for meaning and truth, we may want to believe, but ultimately the world just doesn’t work that way and we are left to decide on our own. This may be a documentary, but its ambiguity is a fantastic example and reminder of the unpredictability of human nature.