SIFF Film Review – The Imposter
In October of 1997, the family of Nicholas Barclay received a phone call from Linares, Spain, claiming their missing son had been found. Three years earlier, on June 13th, 1994, Nicholas had called his mom for a ride, but his older brother didn’t want to wake her and told him to walk home; he never arrived. He was a troubled child, and many people assumed that he ran away from home—which he had done on a previous occasion—but, after awhile, his family came to believe that there must have been foul play. Fast-forward to 1997 and the call from Spain. They are told Nicholas is in custody without any identification papers. His sister, Carey Gibson, leaves Texas to fetch him, and upon arrival in Spain, is convinced that the boy presented to her is, in fact, her brother. He seems secretive and different, but she believes his story and is able to reassure the Spanish authorities of his identity. She and Nicholas fly back home, where he is welcomed back into the arms of his family. There are some inconsistencies; his eyes are now brown and he has aged considerably, but these are explained away by the details of his story.
Alternate version: In October 1997, a dark-haired, 23-year-old French man is picked up by the Spanish police and, after claiming to be 16, is taken to a children’s facility. He has no papers, but tells the officials that he is an American and if they leave him alone in the office overnight, he will call his family and let them know that he is safe. (He doesn’t want them to hear all of this from a strange policeman.) They acquiesce, and he spends the evening online and on the phone, calling different organizations in the United States trying to find a new identity. He lands on the case of Nicholas Barclay, and decides to be him, unaware that Nicholas has blonde hair and blue eyes. He figures out pretty quickly that he’s going to have to hustle in order to pass as Nicholas, so he makes a few cosmetic changes, but is pretty sure that the jig will be up when Carey Gibson comes to get him. To his complete surprise, she believes his story. They go back to Texas, and until a private investigator named Charlie Parker steps into the story, the imposter successfully steps into Nicholas’s shoes.
This story is told in the new documentary The Imposter, directed by Bart Layton, which I saw at the Seattle International Film Festival. Before you get all mad at me about spoiling the plot of the movie, almost everything I’ve written so far is in the first third of the film, so settle down: this is just the tip of the iceberg. It is a complex and fascinating story about a man who claims he just wants somewhere to belong, and a family that would believe anything in order to have their son back. The movie’s implausibility (and some its style) reminded me of an Errol Morris film, but without his quirkiness. Which is fine—other people besides Morris are allowed to make good films about real stories that pique the imagination in unexpected ways; and this is a good film. It alternates between Barclay’s family and his imposter, with the director using re-enactments to emphasize the narrative. It’s impossible to believe that these people could be duped, because the fake Nicholas Barclay looks nothing like the original. Their need to believe him is heartbreaking, because who wouldn’t want to believe against all evidence that a missing child was safely back? But seriously, this guy can’t even fake a crappy American accent. And when the film starts asking questions about the family’s motivations, things really get interesting.
The structure of the film is pretty solid, but there is one narrative thread towards the end of the movie that has shades of Al Capone’s vault to it. (In 1986, Geraldo Rivera aired a special where he promised to display the contents of what was rumored to be Al Capone’s secret vault. The build-up to the event was relentless; the denouement somewhat disappointing.) It’s a legitimate choice by the director, but I felt as if he was manufacturing tension where there didn’t need to be any. I understand that conflict and tension are what make films interesting, but sometimes the nature of the story provides enough for several movies—this time being one of those. But that small part of the movie is not enough to ruin the whole thing. I was completely engaged with this film because it has two completely separate narratives that intersect because of one man’s desire to escape himself. Both stories are equally interesting and do not end up where you think they should. It’s slick in a good way, and its tricky style mirrors the complex machinations of its protagonists.
Final Grade: A-