If a more singularly entertaining documentary than Bart Layton’s The Imposter is released in 2012, I’ll be amazed. Lacking any real message, this is a doc whose sole purpose is to hold your attention, and it does that with a story that’s simply twisted and bizarre — and becomes more so as its runtime unravels. If this had been a narrative film — with “based on a true story” plastered over its opening credits — then I’d think the whole thing was embellished. But by going the documentary route, The Imposter becomes a surprisingly engrossing tale of really, truly, awesomely screwed-up people.
The gist of Layton’s film involves Frédéric Bourdin, a 23-year-old Frenchman, who decides to pretend to be an abused, wayward teen as a means of getting thrown into a home for troubled kids, and thus be given the chance to begin his life anew. This quickly unravels when police officers begin grilling him, so Frédéric — out of panic — claims he’s American, and manages to find the name — through some conning and conniving of American law enforcement agencies — of Nicholas Barclay, a Texas teen who’d been missing for over three years. Before realizing Nicholas has blond hair and blue eyes, the brown-haired, brown-eyed, French-accented Frédéric decides to try and pass himself off as this missing kid, spinning a tale of his “disappearance” that revolves around secret military sex rings and medical experiments.
What’s even more odd is that — with the aid of a box of hair dye — Bourdin’s plan begins to work, as Nicholas’ family, and specifically his sister Carey, accept him almost effortlessly as their long lost brother. All of this by itself makes for a pretty quirky true life tale. But when we learn some theories as to why the Nicholas’ family would so readily accept the specious idea that this is their family member, the film nearly tips over into the absurd. Without giving away surprises the plot holds, here is where we learn that nearly everyone in the film might just be certifiably screwy. While the movie never deals in absolutes and, instead, depends on speculation (sometimes that of Frédéric, an obvious pathological liar), it’s an almost unbelievable perfect storm of circumstance and crackpots, all merging together into one infinitely fascinating tale.
It helps that the film is told through a combination of talking-head interviews and reenactments. Frédéric — for all his obvious faults and unreliability — is a curious, often charming subject, who has no problem discussing his techniques for fooling people. At the same time, The reenactments shouldn’t be thought of as the junk from Unsolved Mysteries. This is best the documentary I have seen since Man on Wire (2008), often cleverly flowing in and out of interviews, and never turning into distracting cheese. The pity in all of this is that The Imposter is still a doc, a genre that’s notorious for rarely drawing a crowd. The Imposter is one of those films that deserves an audience. Rated R for language.