REVIEW: "The Imposter" takes an eerie 1990s true-crime story to a higher level.
Odd factual tales are generally termed stranger than fiction. The true-crime documentary "The Imposter" is weirder than whacked-out fantasy.
In 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay vanished without a trace from San Antonio, Texas. Three-and-a-half years later he was found alive 5,000 miles away in a village in southern Spain with a story of kidnap by men in armed forces uniform. His family was shocked and thrilled to bring him home. But troubling complications emerged. Though he had a number of identifying marks, his blue eyes were now brown and he spoke English with a French accent. The Barclay family and FBI agents puzzled over his detailed stories of being physically altered and sexually abused by his military captors.
Director Bart Layton has a phenomenal mystery story to tell, parceling out clues and surprises, cliffhangers and red herrings like a novelist constructing an elaborate plot. The characters who appear onscreen may or may not be trustworthy. Layton neither endorses nor undermines their comments, and viewers will have an exhilarating time sorting through their competing and contradictory claims.
From the beginning of the film we know that Frdric Bourdin, a clever and devious 23-year-old French-Algerian, plays a key role in orchestrating Nicholas Barclay's return. We know he's untrustworthy. He admits as much, paradoxically winning our confidence. When the Barclay clan brings long-lost Nicholas into their troubled, forlorn home, are they maintaining a fiction for reasons of their own? When a veteran San Antonio private investigator sniffs out something wrong, is he the keenest mind on the case or a misguided obsessive?
"The Imposter" is philosophical, startling, sometimes droll and gorgeously photographed. Like the chameleon of its title, it challenges our powers of scrutiny. It inquires into the human tendency to embellish memories and believe far-fetched but emotionally reassuring stories. It probes the methods a determined sociopath can use to confound, and delves into the mind of a recidivist criminal who considers any assumed identity preferable to his own.
Layton presents shards of the eerie story. He stages key episodes with actors standing in for the real participants, blurring the line between reenactment and fiction. Identity, motive and every narrator's reliability go slippery as we delve into unfathomable events. Time and again as I watched this surpassingly strange story, I felt "I can't believe I'm seeing this." It's a rare and wonderful movie that can capture the sense of reality slipping away. Layton's film joins the top ranks of nonfiction films because he recognizes that in this case no solution could be as engrossing as the questions.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186