Review: The Imposter

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The Pitch: All in the family.

The Review: Who am I? You’re somewhere, reading this review and  this blog, and will likely fall into one of two groups. You may have somehow come to this site via the wonder of the internet, somehow curious as to the thoughts of a random stranger on blockbusters and documentaries, possibly one with similar tastes. You may have wandered over via Twitter, read a few reviews and begun to form a picture in your mind. An over-zealous student looking to make his way in the film world, perhaps? Or a grumpy old man with a love of both films and the sound of his own voice. Already those two sentences have limited your options by 50% – if, of course, you believe a single word I say. And why should you? You don’t know me from Adam. Indeed, maybe I could even be Adam – maybe attempts to name myself to the contrary are just an idle attempt at misdirection. I could be a five foot tall coal miner or a greying Cabinet minister, and unless you met me, you just wouldn’t know. But surely if you’d met me, you’d know who I was. Wouldn’t you?

Identity and integrity are the common themes of Bart Layton’s documentary, which attempts to lay out the curious tale of Nicholas Barclay, a thirteen year old American boy who simply goes missing one day in 1994, to the complete horror of his family. Three years later, they get a phone call from Spain, where the boy has been reported found. Time changes all of us, especially at that age, but Nicholas seems to have undergone a transformation that even Edmund Blackadder would find hard to pull off. Three years in Spain, poorly treated by his abductors, have left him unable to speak without an accent, and thanks to his mistreatment his hair colour has also gone much darker. As have his eyes. But his family know immediately that they’ve found their long lost son, so why is the only person seemingly doubting this a private investigator who comes upon the case almost by accident?

The Imposter plays out with a combination of styles, mixing the standard talking heads approach of the majority of the main players with dramatic reconstructions set at the time of the disappearance and reappearance. Initially the talking heads don’t do the family any favours (Spain, for example, is “all the way across the other side of the country”), but it would be hard to fault their willingness to accept such a miracle if presented to them. But that, in and of itself, wouldn’t make for much of a remarkable story. What does set the story apart are the narrative twists and turns, piling implausibility on top of disbelief which would be impossible to credit if the movie hadn’t credibly presented the evidence, even to the extent of archive TV news footage at the time. The Imposter manages to cram in as many twists as a classic noir, but never loses its through line or its intent.

Much of this is the other half of the film, as in addition to those talking heads the recreations of the events as they unfold help to truly bring the drama alive. To say that the early scenes are a little reminiscent of The Usual Suspects is intended as a favourable comparison, even evoking such direct comparisons as the teenager sat in a police station, casting his eyes over the bulletin board. But it’s also the storytelling rhythm of Suspects and its kin that The Imposter feeds off, with the recreations feeling more at home in the thriller genre than the documentary. Layton tightens the tension like a screw, never allowing it to dissipate for a minute, and by the time the later revelations come The Imposter exerts a vice like grip which it never relinquishes.

Back to that Usual Suspects comparison. While many such films have a slow reveal, The Imposter plays its first trump card immediately; imagine Keyser Soze staring down the barrel of the camera with dead-eyed certainty, wearing a T-shirt saying “I’m Not To Be Trusted!” Layton never attempts to portray his subjects as anything other than the classic unreliable narrator’s extended family, but still it’s to his credit that the techniques he employs will not only help you to empathise, but by the end be as desperate to find the truth as that dogged private investigator. Who am I? That question isn’t actually important, it’s a red herring, as long as you believe me when I say that The Imposter is one of the finest documentaries in years and hopefully not the last we’ll see of Bart Layton. And you know me; I wouldn’t lie to you, would I?

Why see it at the cinema: With the cinematic qualities of a great thriller, coupled with the knowledge that it’s based on fact, you’ll not only enjoy the visuals but also possibly be more drawn in by the sound of gasping all around you. Layton works the cinema screen like an established master and The Imposter is not to be missed.

The Score: 10/10