Truth that is undeniably stranger than fiction. A film that shows us that we may have found the enemy, and it may be us.
Emerging director Bart Layton’s debut feature film is a corker of a documentary. Perhaps it is more of a docu-drama although there are few who would care about the difference. Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, “The Imposter” will keep you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. It is a mystery thriller that the viewer does not want to end.
This is especially true because the film does not tie all the loose ends together. It is Agatha Christie without all of the suspects getting together in the drawing room for the final showdown. The audience is left with the same feeling of imponderable sadness that befalls every family of a missing person. There is no way to find out the truth and there is no way to stop yearning to know it.
In 1994, San Antonio 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay reportedly called home and asked for a ride. His older half-brother Jason reported to police that he refused to give Nicholas a ride. Nicholas was never seen again. Nicholas’ mother was a heroin addict working the night shift at the local doughnut shop. Jason was developing a cocaine addiction that would kill him a few years later. In the two months after Nicky’s disappearance, police were called to the twice to intervene in violent arguments between the two. All was not well in the household before the boy’s disappearance and things did not get any better after he was gone.
October 1997, Nicky’s mom received a call from Linares, Spain reporting that a boy claiming to be Nicky wanted to be returned to his home in the USA. The family was floored but excited. Nicky's 31-year-old half-sister, Carey Gibson, flew to Spain to meet and identify her lost brother. The young man she met was not Nicky, but psychopathic missing child impersonator Frédéric Bourdin. This is not a spoiler, the film divulges the fact right from the start. The incredibly bizarre mystery that unfolds is inly just starting with the hilariously misguided mascaraed perpetrated by Bourdin and aided and abetted by the Spanish Consulate, The Center for Missing and Abused Children, the FBI and last, but certainly not least, every member of Nicky’s family.
The fact that Bourdin was able to play both ends against the middle and identify himself as a real missing child is, in and of itself, amazing. The story is reminiscent of 2002’s Spielberg masterpiece “Catch Me If You Can.” It is every bit that good. The funny part is that after Bourdin started the wheels in motion with a good, believable name, he came to find out that the missing child not look, in the least, like him. Different eye, skin and hair color were just the start of the problems. The tattoo Bourdin had faked by one of the kids at the shelter, but faking a native language was a completely different task. Terrified, he dyed his hair, waited for Carey Gibson to show and prepared for prison.
To his surprise and to the surprise of everyone in the audience, Carey welcomed him with open arms. To our further amazement, the entire family in Texas welcomed him in the same way. From what we can tell, Bourdin covered himself with a hoody and wore sunglasses whenever he was in public, in what would appear to be the most feckless and hopeless ruse in the history of scams.
Nonetheless, it appeared to work. But how? And why?
Over the next six months every person except the family members seemed to know Bourdin was not Nicky. However, the case has taken a different twist by this time. Now, it had inexplicably turned into a case of the family’s word against the word of the authorities. The family heatedly stated and restated that Nicky had returned. When mom Beverly was approached for a DNA test, she went ballistic. Her lie detector tests were inconclusive. The authorities were stalemated.
Enter private eye Charlie Parker (played by Alan Teichman), the best character in the film. Parker was the first to smell a rat and eventually obtained permission to dig deeper into the mystery (no pun intended). Half-brother Jason was interviewed about the FBI, in search of more details about the circumstances surrounding Nicky’s appearance. With Jason’s death of a drug overdose a few weeks after questioning by the FBI, the investigation ground to a halt. In a suitably bizarre coda, Bourdin sickened of life in Texas and confessed, pleading to be transferred to a prison in France, instead. Nicky’s whereabouts may never be known.
This is a fascinating tale. The first person narration, presumably in Bourdin’s own words (he has given many interviews) carries the heft and scariness of Gianfranco Rosi and Charles Bowden’s potboiler “El Sicario, Room 64: A Mexican Hit Man Tells All.” This is a film that takes the viewer into the mind of a man who is not well. Or, at least, not wired like the rest of us.
Every bit as good as James Marsh’s Oscar-winning doc “Man on Wire” and Anna Broinowski’s incredible “Forbidden Lies.”
In the final analysis, the only good thing that may come out of this film is the hopeless plight of the world’s missing and abused children. The fact is, this is a film that shows us that we may have found the enemy, and it us.
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Directed by: Bart Layton
Starring: Adam O'Brian, Anna Ruben and Cathy Dresbach
Release Date: July 13, 2012
MPAA: Not Rated
Running Time: 95 Minutes