Director: Bart Layton
MPAA Rating: R
Studio: Indomina Group
In Bart Layton’s enthralling, bizarre and nerve-jangling true crime documentary The Imposter, his older sister, mother and other family members describe the devastating impact of the 1994 disappearance of blond, blue-eyed, cocky 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay of San Antonio, Texas. The family’s emotional and psychological toll seems apparent as they choke back anger and frustration in describing their tireless search for clues when the police gave up, their attempts at humor and bravery in the face of tragedy, their speculations about what terrible things might have happened to that young boy. And then, after three years of uncertainty and grieving, the inconceivable: someone claiming to be Nicholas has been found alive — in Spain, of all places.
Sister Carey boards her first airplane to bring home the strange, silent boy, whom she accepts as her brother despite the fact that his eyes are now brown, his hair black, he remembers nothing of his family and he only speaks with a French accent; likewise, his mother also takes him to her bosom. The title of the movie alone tells us that deception is being perpetrated. Right on camera and straight from the imposter’s mouth, we’re told that this deeply damaged, glib, sociopathic 23-year-old man is deliberately lying through his teeth, exploiting a family’s grief by hijacking Nicholas Barclay’s identity. The U.S. and international authorities have little choice but to go along with the family’s conclusions. Is the family’s emotional pain so great that they are blind to what has clearly been a botched investigation by the authorities, let alone a shameless deception by a chronic con artist? Or is the family of Nicholas Barclay covering something even more deeply weird and troubling? That’s the fascination and horror of The Imposter, the real-life circumstances and motivations of which are so twisted and absurd that they seem like something Poe might have whipped up for Alfred Hitchcock or the Coen brothers.
A fictionalized, French-made film version of the same case, The Chameleon, was released in 2010 but was trite and dull, something one would be hard-pressed to say about The Imposter. If you're the type who likes your mysteries wrapped up all neat and tidy by the finale, you might think twice about seeing The Imposter, in which the truth is a slippery, shape-shifting and, finally, unknowable thing.