A true-crime drama that may not actually be true
The Imposter tells the story of Nicholas Barclay, a 13-year-old San Antonio boy who disappeared in 1994, only to turn up three years later in Spain claiming to have been abducted, raped, and tortured. Though the film is a documentary, it is shot with the slickness of a thriller.
Even more unusual is director Bart Layton’s choice to immediately give away what ought to be the film’s biggest secret: the man who returns to the Barclays, and whom they welcome as their son, is not, in fact, Nicholas.
It’s on the surface a strange move—wouldn’t the movie be more suspenseful if we didn’t already know that a 23-year-old European was posing as the 16-year-old Texan?—but it allows Layton to tell a far more nuanced story. He offers two parallel narratives: one told through interviews with Nicholas’s family members, and the other through the gripping account of the man who duped them. As the story unravels, obvious questions—how did this man pull off such a stunt? How far was he able to take the deception?—give way to difficult ones: Why did Nicholas’s family accept the imposter? Was there something more sinister at work?
The film begins with Nicholas’s sister, Carey Gibson, and his mother, Beverly Dollarhide, relating the painful details of his disappearance. We hear the emergency call that led to the recovery of a teenage boy on the streets of Linares, Spain, and again with a staged reenactment of the event: a slow pan through pouring rain that settles on a hooded figure cowering in a telephone booth. Finally, we meet the man who was found there: he is olive-skinned and dark-eyed, in contrast to the blonde, blue-eyed Nicholas shown in photos, and speaks with a decidedly un-Texan accent. He is animated and articulate, voicing a desire to relive a childhood he never had.
We are aware that he is a liar, most likely a pathological one, but his story is irresistible. While Carey’s and Beverly’s accounts are straightforward and sad, his tale sparkles, energized by its audacity.
A ticking, pulsing score propels the film through expansive shots of the Texas countryside and dreamy, wordless dramatizations of the story’s events. The interviews are peppered with lingering close-ups of the subjects, their eyes cast downward with deep, unreadable import. Layton takes unabashed joy in these cinematic manipulations, and it is for this reason, oddly, that the film works.
This isn’t so much a story about the lies we tell or the truths we cover up, he seems to say, but about the narratives we invent to make sense of reality.
The Imposter can be read as a parable about truth, or even a meditation on grief, but at its heart it is a story fascinated by its own process. Layton lets us in on the joke: we know we’re being duped by the filmmaker as surely as by the characters in the film.
But the tale is doubly disturbing for the fact that, even with the curtain pulled back, we still thrill in its telling.
OPENS | 8.17.12
RATING | NR