We Failed This Film: Bart Layton’s ‘The Imposter’

“We Failed This Film” is an ongoing column highlighting films that did not get the love/recognition they deserved upon initial release. I originally covered 24 different wonderful films for another site before I left it. Those can be read here if you like.

How We Failed It

One of my goals this year has been to watch and write about more documentaries, just because they’re a portion of film I’m not that well-versed in. I’ve been wanting to write about Bart Layton’s The Imposter for years since I regard it to be one of the best documentaries of the decade, and it occurred to me that we failed it. It was not recognized by the larger awards body, and remains largely undiscovered amongst most filmgoing people. Layton created a stunning work of documentary filmmaking that plays with the audience’s notions of empathy and expectation in his account of one of the strangest crime stories.

In 1994, 13-year old Nicholas Barclay went missing in San Antonio, Texas. 3 years later in 1997 in Spain, 23-year old French con artist Frederic Bourdin assumes the identity of Barclay and goes to live with the Barclay family in Texas. The story only gets weirder, tenser and more intriguing from there.

The film came just shy of a $2 million gross, which is actually tremendous for a documentary. Nobody makes a documentary expecting to make money. It only played in 31 theaters, but that’s the price of being a documentary. Unfortunately there was a significant lack of prominent critics who reviewed the film which kept it out of the conversation of best documentaries of that year. If you google “The Imposter Review” the findings are short in supply. The film was not reviewed by Roger Ebert which significantly hurts any film’s exposure. But among the critics that did review the film, the praise was united.

Peter Bradshaw wroteThis film is as gripping as any white-knuckle thriller: it is one of the year’s best. And what a finale. Contemporary documentaries don’t consider themselves bound by courtroom-style “discovery” rules about letting us know the complete story up front; they will withhold the big surprises. This third act is sensational. Anyone who goes to the movies knows how few fiction features have a good ending, or anything other than a good pitch, or opening premise. This one has a brutally powerful final twist, which resolves chillingly into a minor key of ambiguity.”

Todd Gilchrist chimed in with “Ultimately, however, The Imposter is a great commentary on the subjectivity of any event, and one that probes deeply into the motivations of its subjects. And while in a beautiful way it declines to judge either side’s observations and arguments, its examination of that nebulous space between one perspective and another reveals more about both parties than any concrete definition of the truth ever could.”

The biggest crime was that it wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, and didn’t get much awards recognition at all as the BAFTAs were the only major circuit to nominate the film. The Oscars in the grand scheme of things don’t matter much and shouldn’t be viewed as accurate determinants of quality, but when they fail to recognize that one of the best documentaries of the decade exists, it hurts. The lack of awards recognition plays a huge part in why people still haven’t seen this film.

Why It’s Great

The way Layton employs dramatic reenactments brings to mind how Errol Morris pioneered the technique with The Thin Blue Line, both filmmakers utilize the method to show us each person’s conflicting portrayal of the events. Layton adds to the effect of playing with truth by hyper-stylizing the aesthetic of the reenactments to give the effect of a thriller. It’s almost like David Fincher directed those segments it’s so effectively done. It never feels like it’s trying to hard to dramatize and intensify what you’re being told, it fits in perfectly as an aesthetic in this bizarre and dark tale.

The first words Frederic Bourdin tells us are “For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be someone else. Someone who was accepted.” Bart Layton films Bourdin in tight close-ups with him looking directly at us. This forces us to empathize with him and understand his motivations. One one hand, he just wants a fresh start and to feel accepted again – yet on the other he is addicted to sympathy and the rush of being someone else. You feel so conflicted about him. He walks us through the painstaking steps he takes to sell himself as a kid. He is masterful and meticulous in how he ingratiates himself into different identities to garner sympathy from authorities. This is a man who knows exactly how to do what he is doing. You can’t trust a word he says, but at the same time you want to because he’s so charismatic.

And now, we must discuss the twists and turns the film takes, so please take this as your spoiler warning.

I felt sick when the realization of what may have really happened to Nicholas Barclay hit me, I had to pause the film and collect myself. At a certain point in the story, Bourdin realizes that the reason the family was so open to accept him as Nicholas and refutes all proof that he isn’t Nicholas by investigators is because they are in some way responsible for the death of Nicholas Barclay. In particularly, the film suspects mother Beverly and older brother Jason were responsible in some way as they were the last ones to see him alive.

I bring up this twist not to debate its merits (which I support), but because the way Layton handles it is so arresting. He lets you figure it out for yourself, then has someone say what you’re thinking. We spend a good portion of the film perceiving the Barclay family as victims. Layton opens the film by hearing their accounts of Nicholas’s disappearance to get us to quickly empathize with them. By the time we realize what may have actually happened and the possible ulterior motives for taking in Bourdin, it’s all the more shocking because Layton has made us feel so strongly for their loss and heartbreak and then yanked it away. It’s a wonder how Layton got the family to participate in the film so openly when in the end they are the ones who we are questioning.

This film is a prime example of the saying “truth is stranger than fiction”. If this was a narrative film, you wouldn’t believe any of it. The twists and turns it takes would just seem too ridiculous. You couldn’t write a character like Bourdin, he would just seem too outlandish. You’d love to just talk to Layton about it all for hours. There’s an element of luck in all great documentaries – luck that the filmmakers managed to stumble on this story, luck that they got extensive cooperation from their subjects, luck that they had the camera rolling at the right time. There is a great degree of luck in how Layton gets everyone involved to cooperate, never letting you feel one way or the other about them as he toys with our natural sense of empathy. The Imposter is a riveting documentary, and remains one of the finest of its genre this decade.

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