“For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be someone else.” So begins the twisty tale of a French conman who duped a Texas family into believing he was their long-lost son — or did he? With production values aplenty, “The Imposter” makes slick work of its wily subject, using atmospheric reenactments and stark, soul-baring interviews to explore a mind-boggling case of false identity. The compelling treatment suggests a reasonable chance at theatrical play; pay cablers and VOD labels could also run with this title, which crackles with the open-ended intrigue of a good “Unsolved Mysteries” episode.
Swarthy, heavily accented 23-year-old Frederic Bourdin looks nothing like Nicholas Barclay, who disappeared from a rural San Antonio-area community at age 13. But that didn’t stop the compulsive missing-child impersonator from adopting the teen’s identity in a case so strange, it has inspired countless news stories and even a previous film adaptation, “The Chameleon.” Whereas that pic (made last year by Jean-Paul Salome) approached the subject from the point of view of the family, whose tragedy was amplified by the discovery that this interloper was not their long-lost son, “The Imposter” focuses on Bourdin, making clear from the get-go that his ploy was a scam.
In taking this approach, director Bart Layton respects his audience’s intelligence, shaping the narrative like a classic thriller while leaving plenty of room for us to supply our own psychological detective work. How could the family ignore the obvious differences between Nicholas and his doppelganger? The standard story holds that they were so desperate to reunite with their son, they would have believed anything. But that doesn’t gel, as testimony from neighbors and fresh clues dug up by a private investigator suggest that Nicholas was often at odds with his family.
A long, seemingly candid interview with Bourdin serves as the pic’s backbone, feeding seamlessly into staged versions of the stories he relays. One moment, the wickedly smug imposter is describing his long-running tactic of passing himself off as an orphan in order to be placed in a children’s home, the next, a startlingly similar-looking actor is finishing his sentences within a reenactment scene. The effect is not only slick, but unsettling, drawing attention to the fact that the film, like the incidents it depicts, involves a certain bending of the truth.
With a magician’s skill, Layton introduces complications in the story where they will deliver maximum impact. The first twist comes as the opening title appears, following an early round of testimony from the key players (who include Nicholas’ mother and sister, later joined by a number of authorities and investigators): In Linares, Spain, police receive a call from a man claiming to have found a missing kid, only the caller is himself the “child” in question. This early feint preps us for the many unpredictable turns in the road ahead, which range from speculating what might happen should the real Nicholas return to the filmmaker actually participating in a hunt for the poor boy’s grave.
Launched at Sundance two years after “Catfish,” this unnerving portrait of identity manipulation proves rich enough to inspire a wide range of debates over the motives of the various characters involved. Though the prospect of familial affection, not fame, seems to have been the primary driver for his deception, given a sociopath of Bourdin’s caliber, the most gratifying form of reward is surely being made the star of such a film.