Close-ups on con-man vs. longer shots on family
TV-daytime Unsolved Mysteries and Errol Morris
One day, Nicholas Barclay, 13, disappeared. He called his older brother, Jason, to ask for a ride home, but Jason didn’t want to wake up their mom so he told Nicholas to walk the annoying-but-not-unreasonable two miles. He never came home, he never called, and nobody knew what happened.
Three years later, Frédéric Bourdin, 23, called the police from a phone-booth in Spain, was taken in, and through a bout of charisma and authorial naivety, was able to secure enough time to assume Nicholas’ identity despite being seven years older and being a far-cry from the blond-haired, blue-eyed child in pretty much every conceivable way. Nevertheless, he fooled the police, the FBI, and even the Barclay family. He was home.
That’s the premise of Burt Layton’s documentary The Imposter, which would certainly be criticized as too-implausible if it were a work of fiction. It heavily utilizes the re-enactments that Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line popularized, but Layton’s compositions are not as eye-catching as Morris’. In many ways, this could be an elongated, better episode of Unsolved Mysteries, but the production values and cinematic understanding are far better. Take, for example, the way that Bourdin is always shot in close-up, allowing him to work his deceptive and charismatic tricks on us. One would think that somebody masquerading as a long-lost 13 year old boy is the bad guy, but as he describes the way that the Barclay family responded and tells us that he did everything in search for love and family, we find ourselves taking his side. Layton knows that a liar as good as Bourdin could easily win over a movie-audience, especially one that is watching a film that feels more like a thriller than a documentary, so Layton leaves the camera close to let him work his magic.
Likewise, the Barclay family is always shot from a much-further distance. We can’t key-in on their facial expressions and mannerisms quite as well, and each individual family member gets much less screen-time than Bourdin. As a result, we start to distrust them. What Bourdin did was wrong, but he has us convinced it was for good reasons, and he got himself in too deep. But the family seems to have let it happen. Why?
Layton’s masterful editing slowly cuts to the root of the whole thing, and the film is essentially proving to us exactly what Bourdin proves. A combination of a need for closure and wishful thinking can make people believe a well-told story regardless of how implausible it is. Bourdin couldn’t be Nicholas. How could he be? His eyes are brown, he’s growing a dark-haired beard, he speaks in a French accent, and he doesn’t recognize anything. At one point, Nicholas’ sister says, upon hearing of the possibility that it isn’t Nicholas that the first emotion is to be sad. “Now we’re back to square one. Where is Nicholas?” That’s where nobody wants to be. With Bourdin, they have closure. Nicholas is here, and even if he’s not, it’s much easier to believe that he is.
Maybe the Barclay family murdered Nicholas, The Imposter suggests. This does not make sense. That would mean that three years after the murder, with no suspicion on them whatsoever, the family decided to take in a kid claiming to be their long-lost son. There is also no evidence whatsoever pointing to it. One might say that the brother who received Nicholas’ phone call never believed that Bourdin was Nicholas and find it peculiar that he overdosed right when a P.I. decided to investigate the possibility, but that still is not evidence. The big empty hole at the end of the film symbolizes the total lack of evidence for such a theory. Yet, despite the lack of evidence, the audience will somehow believe it, just as the family somehow believed that Bourdin was Nicholas despite everything pointing to the contrary. From the very beginning, Layton was pulling the same kind of tricks that Bourdin was. Without even realizing it until it’s over, form matches content.
It’s that brilliant editing, which translates into great storytelling, that makes The Imposter work. One could be quick to accuse the film of lacking intellectual rigor, or being a glorified version of day-time TV, but in reality, The Imposter is an engaging thriller doc that pulls a surprising trick purely through its use of cinematic tools. As a mental challenge it may be simple, but as an aesthetic exercise, it’s quite successful.