The Imposter plays like a particularly good episode of Unsolved Mysteries, not just because actual documentary footage is interspersed with reenactments, but also because the true story it tells is a thoroughly absorbing combination of intrigue and suspense. As with all good thrillers, fictional or non, what begins as a seemingly simple crime eventually escalates into something much more complicated; it’s not so much about who has done something as it is about what has actually happened and why. Truth is always a murky subject, mainly because it depends entirely on perception. In this case, because our sources of information prove to be unreliable, we can’t even trust what we perceive. On the one hand, we have a family who may know more than it’s letting on. On the other hand, we have the title subject, a notorious pathological liar.
The film simultaneously documents and dramatizes the case of Nicholas Barclay, who disappeared in June of 1994 at the age of thirteen. When he was last seen, he was playing basketball with his friends in his native San Antonio. A street smart kid with a history of behavioral problems and a juvenile criminal record, he had run away before, and it was initially assumed that he had run away again. However, when his absence stretched beyond his typical window of one day, it was obvious that something more serious had taken place. It wouldn’t be until 1997 that a new chapter of the case would begin. In October of that year, the police in Linares, Spain received a phone call from a tourist reporting a lost, frightened, apparently traumatized teenage boy with no identifying documents. He initially said little to authorities, but eventually, he told them he was an American named Nicholas Barclay.
He claimed he had escaped from a child prostitution ring and that his memories of his life back in Texas had grown dim. He also claimed that his originally blonde hair and blue eyes were chemically treated by his abductors to appear brown, and that his distinctly European accent and phrasing was the result of having been away from the U.S. so long. The Barclay family was soon contacted, even though no one in Spain could be sure of the boy’s story. Nicholas’ older sister, Carey, flew all the way to Spain to retrieve him from a children’s shelter, and although she was heartbroken by the profound changes she noticed, she believed that he was in fact her long lost brother. Once embassy officials and U.S. federal agents were satisfied and he was sent back to San Antonio, the rest of the Barclays believed it as well. And so life would go on until March of 1998, when the persistence of a skeptical private investigator named Charlie Parker lead to the discovery that the person living with the Barclays was not sixteen-year-old Nicholas.
He was, in fact, twenty-three-year-old Frenchman Frédéric Bourdin, who began impersonating others as a child and by 2005 had assumed nearly forty false identities, three of which were of missing teens. The press has nicknamed Bourdin, now nearly forty, The Chameleon. After pleading guilty to passport fraud and perjury in San Antonio, he was sentenced to six years in prison. He would continue to assume identities in both the U.S. and Europe, until, supposedly 2005, at which point he vowed to retire. Although he’s now married with three children, I take his vow about as seriously as I take his claim that he never knew his father, that his mother had tried to abort him and would eventually abandon him, that he was raised in a children’s home, that he was sexually abused, and that he did what he did as a way to find the love and affection he never received. His history, coupled with his theoretically candid interview footage, leaves me with no reason to believe him.
But that isn’t the end of the story. How is it possible that the Barclays were so blind to the obvious physical differences between Nicholas and Bourdin? Why were they so willing to believe his story and let him stay in their home? Could it be that they had something to hide? It eventually came to light that both Nicholas’ mother and older half-brother were both in the throes of severe drug addictions, and that the mother failed the second of two polygraph tests when questioned about the disappearance. The half-brother was considered a person of interest, but his death in 1998 as the result of a cocaine overdose effectively stalled the investigation. To this day, the remaining Barclays deny any involvement in Nicholas’ disappearance. And Nicholas is still listed as a missing person.
The reenactments, deliberately vague in the way they look and sound, feature Adam O’Brien as Bourdin, Anna Ruben as Carey, and Alan Teichman as Parker, the latter starring in a chilling segment where a corner of a relative’s back yard is dug up in search of Nicholas’ body. According to Wikipedia, these dramatized segments were precisely why a viewer who saw the film at the Seattle International Film Festival objected to its classification as a documentary. I think this person is too focused on labels; the simple fact is, a true story is being told. That the facts of the case are open for debate, that there has been no closure for the Barclay family, is something director Bart Layton cannot be held responsible for. The Imposter is about deception, of others and of ourselves, and as such, it makes for an irresistible cinematic experience.
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