The Imposter review: A thrilling, unbelievable true crime documentary
Ivan Radford | On 27, Dec 2022
Director: Bart Layton
Cast: Frederic Bourdin, Charlie Parker
Imagine The Talented Mr Ripley is real. Now imagine that Jude Law is a 16-year-old. Now imagine that Matt Damon steals Jude Law’s identity. And that everyone in Jude Law’s family believes him. That’s what The Imposter asks you to do every minute.
Nicholas Barclay lived in Texas. He went missing in 1994. He was 13 years old. He had blue eyes. Four years later, a telephone call came from a small town in Spain. A boy had been found: Nicholas Barclay.
But what we quickly learn is that this is actually Frederic Bourdin (aka The Chameleon), a fraudster who tricks officials into thinking he’s the lost American kid. And then fools Nicholas’ relatives as well. He has brown eyes.
A French adult passing himself off as a US teen despite looking and sounding completely different? How did he do it? Is anyone not fooled by the deception? Will they believe anything just to be happy?
The Imposter teases out the facts slowly, introducing FBI agents, Spanish orphanages and American consuls to give their account of events. Then he wheels out a witness completely from left field: Charlie Parker, PI. He sounds like a made-up character and he talks like a made-up character. He’s closer to a Coen brothers movie than real life – with his obsession with ears, he could have walked straight out of Fargo.
And that’s where The Imposter works its magic. Director Bart Layton, you see, is a crafty trickster himself. He throws everything in to make you doubt what you’re watching: an unbelievable situation, larger-than-life people and, crucially, an unreliable narrator. That’s rightL our guide through Bourdin’s mind-boggling deception? Frederic himself.
We relive each moment, with Frederic’s insider knowledge playing like a bizarre behind-the-scenes commentary. “I had to put in their mind that I was a 13-year-old… I made myself appear small and scared,” he explains with a candid mix of honesty and pride.
“No one ever gave a damn about me…” he offers. Then he smiles at the screen, a pantomime antihero, daring us to question everything he tells us. He’s fascinating, charming. Who wouldn’t believe what he says?
Layton’s not done there, though. Apart from the odd bit of VHS footage, the director fills his film with re-enactments. Interviews with the younger witnesses are staged, locations are faked, and characters develop. It’s like Crimewatch, if Crimewatch were a nail-biting Hollywood thriller.
Some may have a problem with the lack of authentic vox pops in the production – at what point does a documentary become a dramatisation? When does reality become fiction? But the fan of The Imposter is getting caught between those increasingly blurred lines. Dialogue overlaps. Actions are repeated. Sound bleeds from one scene to the other. And once you’ve accepted what Frederic says as fact, up pops Charlie Parker to suggest an even stranger truth.
The result is a thrilling ride that puts you on the edge of your seat, then leaves you balancing there for 90 minutes before finally letting you go so you can rush to the internet and Google the heck out of what you’ve just seen.