[Review] – The Imposter

31 Jul

Title: The Imposter
Year: 2012
Director: Bart Layton
Writer: –
Starring: Frédéric Bourdin, Adam O’Brian, Carey Gibson
MPAA Rating: R, language
Runtime: 95 min
IMDb Rating: 6.6
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Metacritic: 77

In June of 1994 a 13-year-old boy named Nicholas disappeared in Texas, leaving absolutely no clue as to where he left to, or, as many assumed, where he was forcefully taken to. More than three years later they find him in a village in southern Spain, thousands of miles away from home, obviously, claiming that he had been kidnapped, tortured and sexually abused. As you might imagine, his grieving family in Texas was absolutely over the moon that their son, who they were slowly coming to terms with was gone by then, was found, and they were elated when he came back home to them.

Except, you see, it wasn’t like that at all. Not because the family wasn’t overjoyed when he got home, they were, but because the boy who came home as their son was actually an impostor. And it’s not as though the family, when they saw him, immediately realized it wasn’t their son. No, the guy had everyone fooled for a few months. The fact that the family wanted to believe so much that their son was alive and back with them probably being what blinded them and made them focus on the similarities more than on the fact that the boy who came back spoke with a weird accent, was actually seven years older than their son would have been by then, and had darker hair and eyes. A private investigator was brought into the fold and his questions slowly started uncovering the truth.

That’s actually a real-life case, and The Imposter, the documentary by Bart Layton, focusses on the story of Frédéric Bourdin, the French man who decided to fool this grieving Texas family into thinking that he was actually their lost son. Now, what sets this film apart from other real-life true-crime documentaries is the fact that the events that happened are recreated with actors, and we get a really well-made and stylish kind of psychological noir thriller intertwined with this documentary telling of the story. It’s the kind of thing that if it were just a fiction film you’d say it’s too ludicrous to buy into it, but with the added knowledge that no, this shit actually happened. Pretty mind-blowing, really.

I was really very impressed with how much this film worked for me. How this tale of deception so truly compels you into it, how it gets to be one of the most genuinely entertaining documentaries I’ve watched in a really long time. And Mr. Layton, who’s been directing TV documentaries for some years now but is just now giving us his first feature effort, really knows how to play his cards to really stun us with this stranger-than-fiction kind of tale. I mean, you may know of the tale, because it’s a famous case and because a film called The Chameleon came out in 2010 depicting the events (I haven’t seen it, and it was rather poorly received), but even if you know what will happen at every turn, there’s something in the way that Mr. Layton presents it to you that still manages to shock you.

Something that I think really helps this film is actually the re-enactment scenes. I’m actually usually kind of against these scenes in documentaries because most of the time they’re super cheesy and they’re used by directors who don’t know how else to keep the audience’s attention and are just really badly made, which is why you often only get them in long reports on television news channels. The way Mr. Layton uses them, however, actually enhances the story. Sure, this could have been a documentary that just has the interviews, but these scenes are really well-made, and, most importantly, they are well-used, and they add some power to the overall punch of this film.

Not to mention that these reenactment scenes make this film not only play out as a documentary, but also as this truly gripping psychological thriller, and Mr. Layton many times does little things to kind of blur the line between the real interviews and the stuff that’s acted out, and somehow he just makes all of that work, changing the limitations of the documentary form and getting away with it.

If you are part of the group of people that will denounce this film for using those reenactments, then let me just tell you that you’re way off. Just look at how it’s used here, or at how Errol Morris, one of the masters of the form, uses it. And don’t go on saying that it’s manipulative of the truth, because, yes, it is, but so is any other thing you throw on-screen, you can have interviews edited in a way that can serve a director’s manipulative purpose just as much as any staged reenactment would. So yeah, many times reenactments are done horribly, but don’t knock at how they’re done in The Imposter.

The story is of course truly something special, one of those things that really do seem impossible but that actually happened. I mean, how did this guy’s ruse work? In the opening scenes the man tells you that not even he thought his con would work because it was so implausible, but that then he saw how desperate everyone was to believe that he really was Nicholas, and he was able to pull it off. And that’s something that Mr. Layton also touches upon here, not just the straight-out story of the facts, but also the fact that people were so willing to believe him, and that maybe some noticed the stuff that was so clearly off but were afraid to say anything so as not to spoil it all.

This is a damn good film, one of the finest documentaries of the year, certainly, and the kind of film that really stays with you after you’ve watched it. It’s a film that shows a brilliant use of reenactments, and that makes a 15-year-old case that’s well-known by now seem really new and shocking because of its approach to it. Powerful filmmaking done right, you gotta love it.

Grade: A-

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