“The Imposter”: The Least Plausible Lies are the Ones We Tell Ourselves

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A feeling of dread came over me within the opening minutes of Bart Layton’s The Imposter (2012). A frank, true crime documentary with a creative flair, it only took a few minutes for this film to hook me completely. The Imposter covers the stranger than fiction tale of the 1994 disappearance of 13 year old Nicholas Barclay. The circumstances around his disappearance, and his apparent reappearance three years later had me on the edge of my seat, my jaw agape from disbelief.

Nicholas Barclay was out playing basketball with some friends the night he disappeared into the warm Texas air. He never made it home and despite his family’s frantic searching, they could find no trace of him. Fast forward three years later…the Barclay’s receive a phone call from a supposed police officer in Spain who informs them that Nicholas has been found. Over come with emotion, Nicholas’s sister, Carey Gibson, traveled to Spain to pick him up. However, not all was as it seemed: ‘Nicholas’ was not actually Nicholas, but a 23 year old French man by the name of Frédéric Bourdin. Bourdin was pretending to be a young runaway in the hopes of obtaining shelter. When the Spanish authorities began to question him about his identity, he told them he was from the United States. Using some very sneaky tactics Bourdin claimed the identity of Nicholas Barclay. He continued to lie through his teeth, all the way to America, where the Barclay family accepted him as their son, which begs the question: how could they not recognize a member of their own family?

The film unfolds in a series of interviews with the Barclay family, Bourdin, and various other FBI agents and experts. Bourdin opens up, and speaks in-depth about how he was successfully able to trick Spanish authorities into thinking he was an American teenager. He articulates his fear that Gibson would know right away that he could never be Nicholas…however that moment of confrontation never occurred. She accepted him right away despite his obvious French accent, darker complexion, and brown eyes, Gibson and the rest of the Barclay’s accepted him as their blue eyed, fair, Texan son.

The story is further illustrated through the use of re-enactments, a tactic that reminded me of Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (1988). Although the re-enactments did not always feel necessary, in general, they assisted in the telling of this bizarre, and almost unbelievable story. The story takes even more disturbing twists once the FBI and a Private Detective get involved. I couldn’t look away, for fear of missing some new, strange development.

The mystery is unraveled piece by piece, and the only thing I would have liked to see more of is Bourdin’s history. Bourdin is fascinating, and I wanted to know more about him, and why he was compelled to live the life he was leading. When the film ended, still more questions entered my mind. How could the Barclay’s not have known that Bourdin was not their son? Why did Bourdin carry out a lie this huge? What really happened to Nicholas Barclay?

The Imposter is an absolute must see, if not just to tell your friends about it later and witness their disbelief. Gripping and exceedingly clever, The Imposter should be the next film you check out on Netflix.