Movie Review – The Imposter (2012)

The Imposter, 2012.

Directed by Bart Layton.


Bart Layton’s first full length feature follows the incredible story of conman Frederic Bourdin who fooled everyone by pretending to be missing Texan teenager Nicholas Barclay. Within the web of lies, and questions raised, The Imposter is one of the most bizarre documentaries ever committed to screen.

Following the success of 2010’s Catfish, the desire for thrilling feature length documentaries has increased. The Imposter raises the bar a mile higher than Catfish and proves that Bart Layton is the film-maker to watch. He guides us through the twisted and bizarre tale, allowing the audience to make up their own minds about Bourdin’s motivations and the events that followed.

With a 99 minute run time, The Imposter never lets up on the suspense and I found myself on the edge of my seat throughout the whole film. Even though the story is infamous and you can find out what happened by going on Google, Layton’s examination is thought provoking and extremely suspenseful. This is partly due to the fact that you have Frederic Bourdin speaking throughout the whole documentary. He is a resolute liar and his lack of remorse is chilling.

Layton provides an unflinching examination of Bourdin. He is shot from the neck up; he looks straight into the camera, rarely looking away. The lack of emotion on his face is what makes The Imposter intriguing, yet chilling at the same time. As I was watching I hoped that there would be some explanation as to why Bourdin felt the need to pose as Nicholas Barclay, but the simple fact is that there is no reason. Bourdin guides us through his manipulation, from the momentary decision to become Nicholas Barclay, through his dedication to his con, all the way to the conclusion. It seems almost a paradox to say that Bourdin is the heart of this film, but he is the most engaging “character” throughout.

In order to avoid the standard documentary format, Layton intercuts his various interviews with recreations and offers a pulsating soundtrack. Credit is needed for actor Adam O’Brian who becomes Frederic Bourdin in every sense. Although he doesn’t speak throughout the film, he projects a vulnerability that makes Bourdin a terrifying villain. The Imposter isn’t highly stylised, Layton instead focuses on delivering a compelling story. A technique I enjoyed came when Bourdin was speaking and the sound was changed as if he was speaking on the phone. This technique is used several times throughout the film and aids the audience in understanding how Bourdin was able to manipulate people so effectively.

As with most documentaries, Layton intentionally avoids putting his own view point across. The Imposter is an examination of human desperation, one man’s deception, as well as the failings of various government officials. The fact that Bourdin was able to convince everyone he was Nicholas Barclay is a marvel in itself. What is even more impressive is how it took so long for people to figure it out. Throughout the documentary you’ll be constantly waiting for what little thing will unravel Bourdin’s lies.

Throughout the documentary, there are intercut interviews with various members of Nicholas Barclay’s family. Somehow there are unintentional laughs created, but this is mainly from the absurdity of the situation. Although some have said that The Imposter exploits the disappearance of Nicholas Barclay, I don’t believe this to be the case. In my mind, the documentary is an examination of Bourdin and his ability to fool social workers, judges, and the FBI. Whether he ever truly fooled Barclay’s family is a matter of debate that the final part of the film examines. The key to The Imposter’s success is that it gives more questions than answers. Bourdin’s motivations are explained, but they’re from his perspective and I personally didn’t trust them. Questions over Nicholas Barclay’s disappearance and how Bourdin was able to obtain a passport are left open ended; allowing the audience to make up their own mind.

Despite the success of The Imposter, the question that lingers isn’t “Why did Frederic Bourdin do what he did”, instead it is “What happened to Nicholas Barclay?” Whether this is a failing I’m not sure. But it is a question that will plague everyone after they see this film.

Even if you’re not a documentary fan, The Imposter is well worth a watch. With a pulsing soundtrack, interviews mixed with recreations and a story that’s so bizarre it has to be true, Layton delivers one of the most entertaining and disturbing documentaries in recent years.

Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Helen Murdoch

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