Credit director Bart Layton for taking a subject that appears barely capable of propping up hour-long, true-crime cable programming and turning it into compelling, full-length documentary. The Imposter unravels what happened in the wake of the disappearance of Texas teen Nicholas Barclay, when a 23-year-old French-Algerian man managed to pass himself off as the missing boy and apparently fool his family. Frédéric Bourdin got as far as boarding the school bus before authorities responded to overwhelming evidence, but why blue-eyed Barclay’s family accepted an adult man with brown eyes and a French accent with open arms was still unsolved.
Layton cultivates an atmosphere in which things aren’t quite as they seem, unraveling motivations by exploring perceptions and withholding crucial details until the end to enhance the detective-story aspect of his film. It’s a blueprint Errol Morris designed for The Thin Blue Line, but Layton’s efforts are welcome amidst the vanity projects and stretched-out reality television pilots masquerading as documentaries these days. Bourdin comes off as an obvious jerk at first. He’s exploiting a family in mourning, a fact evident from the get-go, but he presents himself as following currents of circumstance.
It’s the questions that come up that push the film forward. What did actually happen to Nicholas? What would happen if he showed up? How could the family not suspect? Layton relies on re-creations to tie interview segments together until he begins to dig into the family members’ motives, which does make them appear guilty. But the look of abject despair ever-present in the eyes of Nicholas’ mother says more about her culpability than any hypotheses offered in interviews. What’s interesting is how quickly people connected to the case turned on the family once Bourdin was in custody, and the ease with which powerless people on the bottom rungs of society can be thrown under the bus. MATT KELEMEN