Reelings #3: THE IMPOSTER


I’m going to go ahead and spoil the entire plot of Bart Layton’s documentary The Imposter, but only because the film does in its first opening minutes. Why? Because the plot, as balls-out-crazy as it is, is not even the most compelling aspect of this film.

The plot: In 1993, a 13-year old boy named Nicholas Barclay vanishes from his hometown of San Antonio, Texas, never to be seen again. That’s until “he” turns up four years later, discovered by the police, crouched in a phone booth in Spain, prompting them to take him to a foster home. The “boy” they found in the phone booth was actually a 23-year-old man, Frenchman Frédéric Bourdin to be exact, who had spent most of his life pursuing an odd path of crime, impersonating missing children, ostensibly because he wanted to find the love that had been missing from his own childhood.

Once in the foster home, Bourdin agrees to call his parents if the foster home will just give him 24 hours alone in the office. While in the office, he calls the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, asks if anyone matching the description of himself went missing about four years ago, and they fax him an image of Nicholas Barclay. Bourdin, in a moment of panic or inspiration, decides to assume the identity of the missing Barclay, despite the fact that he looks nothing like the missing boy. He dyes his hair blonde, gets tattoos that Barclay had, and hopes for the best. And so begins the insane tale that is the pivot point around which The Imposter spins. Barclay’s family from Texas reunites with him, and Bourdin, posing as Barclay, moves in with them in San Antonio and resumes, or pretends to resume a “normal” life with them.

I’m giving away the plot, because as they say, the devil’s in the details.

The devil in this case appears to be Frédéric Bourdin, master psychopath, whose career was lengthily profiled in David Gann’s New Yorker piece, a man whose acts like a chameleon (his nickname), oscillating between pandering to your emotional compass (he only wants to find a family and to be loved), and appearing utterly creepy and devoid of emotion (there is no clear telling what he’s really up to).

While the film doesn’t delve much into Bourdin’s childhood history (an investigation that might shed light into his particularly curious form of pathological deception), it does start to dig at the Barclay family. The mother of the missing boy, presides over the film like a ghost, showing almost no sign whatsoever of any emotion. There are other members of the family lurking around, but as the film progresses, something is clearly not right with the Barclays.

It’s apparent to any filmgoer that Bourdin looks nothing like the missing San Antonio boy. First off, he’s got a French accent that does not disappear once in the States. Secondly he’s got brown hair (not blond), brown eyes (not blue), and a significant five-o-clock shadow. So the more intriguing question becomes the investigation into the psychology of the Barclay family – why would a family take in a stranger who clearly is not their son? Do they really believe that it is him? Do they want to believe? Or, are they pretending to believe in order to hide something else?

The more nefarious suggestion arises, even from Bourdin himself, that the Barclay family knows very well that he is not Nicholas, but they are pretending to in order to cover up the more disturbing truth that they know what happened to their son.

There’s the personal truths (see: delusions) that the players of this tale cling to, but there’s also someone in the film who thankfully goes for the old-fashioned definition of truth. The film’s watery layers get a fresh look when San Antonio private eye, Charlie Parker, steps onto the scene with his rotund belly and suspenders. He’s not that into all the nuance of the situation; the man just wants to set the record straight. Parker starts off by outing Bourdin as a fraud, using a technique where he compares his ears with photographs of Barclay. Apparently ears are the best way to distinguish people from one another (who knew?) Then, believing that the Barclay family knows what happened to Nicholas, Parker takes up a shovel (literally) and begins hunting for Nicholas Barclay’s body, which he believes is buried somewhere in San Antonio. As he begins the murder investigation, his first suspect, Nicholas’ older brother, overdoses. There’s nothing like a San Antonio private eye scooping the FBI, but more importantly, he adds a layer of common sense to this unbelievable tale of deception.

The Imposter is as thrilling as any action film (I was reduced to many open-mouthed omg’s and wtf’s), employing proficient narrative pizazz and technical flourishes. Yet at times its over-the-top made-for-TV style often felt as though it was part of the grand tale of deceit it was portraying.

In the end, The Imposter managed to portray a complex story, but did little in the way of probing the question that seems to be at the heart of this story: What lengths will we go to in order to be loved? Murder? Lies? Impersonating missing children?

The film is also a solid affirmation of the Didion quote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Without the story that he is a missing child, what then might Bourdin do? For a moment Bourdin, knowing well he was not Nicholas Barclay, had to believe the lie he concocted. In order to “be loved” he had to “be Barclay”, and in order for the Barclay family to believe their own tale (the truth of that one is much murkier), they too had to believe the story. If everyone goes in on the lie, where does the truth really reside?

We all go to desperate lengths to be loved, to believe what we want to. While most of us don’t impersonate missing children in order to find a home, who among us cannot relate to the desire for one? Additionally, we all tell ourselves small lies (most of us steer clear of ones that pique the interest of Interpol), in order to piece together a story we can live with. None of our stories have the brand of truth that detective Charlier Parker would vouch for, but as we all know reality, it turns out, is pretty f’n malleable. Who knows what crazy story we’ll believe next.

Anisse Gross is a writer, editor, artist and question asker living in San Francisco. Her work has been featured in The New Yorker, The Believer, Lucky Peach, Buzzfeed, Brooklyn Quarterly, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She openly welcomes correspondence, friendship, surprises and paid work. More from this author →