Not many documentaries earn the one-word description of “gripping” as deservedly as the Imposter. The film grabs the viewer’s attention from the start by juxtaposing two stories told via that typical documentary tool: the talking head. After the members of a Texas family express their grief over the loss of a teenage boy, the film presents us with the Algerian man living in Spain who seemingly convinced everyone he was that child. The situation is intriguing and powerful in and of itself, but the journey to the film’s unfathomable conclusion has so many left turns some might find an urge to put these people into new context with a second viewing.
The Imposter begins by introducing three members of the Gibson family who share their heartache over the disappearance of 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay in 1994. Home video and still pictures of the blonde, blue-eyed boy appear throughout, as the boy’s sister, bother-in-law and mother reveal their despair over the missing child. Sister Carey Gibson, speaks the most eloquently, as she tears up: “It came to the point where you know you’re not going to find him alive. But you just want to know what happened to him.”
Three years and four months later, the teen is allegedly discovered in Spain, after an emergency call to the police. “From as long as I remember I wanted to be someone else,” is the first line uttered in a French accent by a man with olive skin and dark hair. Despite his appearance and actual, if hidden, 23 years of age, the family will wind up embracing him as Nick without question. If you think, director Bart Layton, has revealed too much too soon to maintain any sense of suspense, expect to be surprised. The Imposter feels like a mind-bender of a documentary that Christopher Nolan never made.
The documentary has a feature film quality, as it melds staged establishing shots of Spain and rural Texas and plenty of quick scenes of dramatizations by actors to illustrate the narratives of the talking heads. These scenes never last too long and are always beautifully stylized and atmospheric with expressionistic lighting and shadows, heightening the suspense of the stories. The moments feel dream-like. Layton often employs slow motion or fast, time-lapsed images. There are many tracking shots that help establish the surreal quality of these re-created memories. The film even has a dramatic score with strings that chug along, perfect for a suspense film. Layton also uses pop music to add a flair of character to these stagey moments, including tracks by Donovan and David Bowie.
These dramatized moments never overtake the narrative, however. The director uses them in a way that never betrays the fundamental mystery at the heart of the movie. Despite the moody quality of the staged parts of the Imposter, the film’s strongest moments remain in what Layton does with actual footage of events. He presents the recording of the emergency call to police about the frightened boy found huddled in a telephone booth one rainy night in Spain not once but three times during the course of the documentary. Each moment adds a different, more astounding resonant quality to the film’s complex narrative. For the pure sake of heightening drama, Layton also does a fascinating trick with video footage shot by the family when the alleged Nicholas arrives at the airport in Texas. He adds a layer of anticipation to this “reunion” with pauses that freeze frames on distorted static, as the film score chugs and wavers below the imagery.
The dramatization in the Imposter adds nicely to the film’s atmosphere, but it is the director’s patient reveal of actual events that will keep viewers entranced. The filmmaker makes a wise choice to skip any voice-over commentary save for a few captions added for clarity’s sake and context. Only the voices of those directly involved in the events depicted in the film offer narration. The director does not even include an inquisitive voice asking questions of the talking heads off-screen. With all the dramatizations sandwiched between the statements by those involved, the film skips along rivetingly. Layton also never uses actors’ voices during the dramatizations. Only on a few occasions does the imposter’s voice appear within the actions depicted, as the actor playing him (Adam O’Brian) mouths the real-life character’s words.
When the titular character explains how he did what he did members of the audience will find themselves hanging on to almost every sentence in suspense. The film does not seem to hold its cards too close to its vest from the get go, as the story already seems too weird to be true. This man talks of his efforts to change his identity like a magician revealing his tricks. He speaks so nonchalant but also as if he can read the minds of those he is playing this supposed trick on. “I washed her brain.” He says plainly of Carey Gibson, the family member who would pick him up in Spain.
Throughout the Imposter, the images and narratives keep the viewer wondering how this could happen. The director does seem to lay it out all out there with no missing pieces, as he recounts how the narratives of this family and this man merged. Even the mundane moments in the film feel unbelievable, as when the family refers to this foreigner they have taken in their arms by the name of Nicholas. Not even the FBI seems to question whether this man is anyone besides Nicholas, rationalizing his appearance and mannerisms to trauma.
Yet, there is never enough information to add to the twists and turns of the Imposter, and the film never relents, maintaining its entrancing quality until its final frame. Even with 10 minutes left to go there are amazing revelations that feel so intense, they might as well be 180-degree turns that will inspire a re-evaluation of anything that came before. It gives this documentary a rare quality worthy of repeat viewing.
The Imposter is Rated R (only for language) and runs 95 minutes. It premiered in Miami during the Miami International Film Festival earlier this year and won the Grand Jury Prize in the documentary competition. It opens in the South Florida area theatrically this Friday, Sept. 14, at many indie theaters. Here they are:
If you live outside of South Florida, it could very well be playing in your area now, but there are also other playdates planned nationally throughout the year. A full schedule can be found on the film’s official website, here. The film’s distributor provided a DVD screener for the purposes of this review.
(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)