A teenage boy disappears without a trace in a small town in Texas. Three years later a phone call from the police reveals he has been found in Spain. He comes home, but hasn’t been there long when suspicions arise that not everything is as it seems, and the boy might not even be the same person. The Imposter is one of those stories so implausible that it could only have happened in real life.

Of course, many people prefer to see films like this without knowing too much in advance, but discussing this film without some spoilers is inherently impossible, so if you haven’t seen The Imposter, consider yourselves warned.

The trailer and title all but give it away, but one of the opening revelations (of which there is a staggering amount) of Brad Layton’s ingeniously constructed documentary is that the boy who comes back is very much not the boy who disappears. In fact, almost the entire story is told from the viewpoint of the imposter in question. He recounts how he first convinces the Spanish police, then the US Embassy and ultimately Nicholas’ family that he is their son. It starts off as unbelievable and gets exponentially more mind-boggling as it goes on. And if the story itself isn’t gripping enough, the style in which it is told is nothing short of impressive.

A close-up of Frederic Bourdin from the documentary thriller The Imposter

Close-up interviews of the Barclay family and the fake Nicholas are inter-cut with a mixture of archive footage and staged scenes, some of them even featuring the imposter himself, either acting his way through events, or injected into the scene, describing what’s going on. In narrative it’s very similar to Man on Wire, James Marsh‘s masterful docu-thriller, but still Layton’s film never feels like a copycat job. It employs a certain style and makes the viewer feel that it’s not the best, but in fact the only way in which this story could be told. It’s too outrageous for anyone to believe it as an acted adaptation, yet a simple interview film could never do the complex story justice.

After opening with giving the fraud away, one might be tempted to think that the fizzle is lost, but instead it opens up a whole lot of other, even more pertinent questions. How the hell did he do this? Why did he do this? Why didn’t the authorities catch on anywhere? Why didn’t the family notice anything was wrong? And if they noticed that somewhere, something was off, why the hell would they not do something about it? What happened to the real Nicholas? And most of all, who in the holy fuck is this guy? With every answer come even more questions, and with every twist, another, even more outrageous, seems inevitable.

Adam O'Brian as Frédéric Bourdin in high school in Texas in The Imposter

Even though Layton doesn’t answer all the questions presented, and leaves one strand involving a local detective a little loose, the overall experience, aided by fantastic cinematography and music, is one of enthrallment. Most apparent in simple, silent shots, like where the camera lingers on a close-up after a person stops speaking, it unveils a dark corner of the human condition, one where despair, grief, love and hope all intersect and the definition of morality is grayed out.

Final Verdict: The Imposter is an ingeniously constructed film about a story too outrageous to be fictional, yet so relatable it’s hard not to be deeply shaken by it. It presents a bucketful of questions right from the start, and leaves you with even more as the credits roll. An exhilarating and often challenging experience, it’s both a great documentary and a gripping thriller.

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