The Imposter (Indomina Releasing, R)

film the-imposter_75It is as if Layton is making fun of his interviewees.

 

film the-imposter_500

The new documentary The Imposter is a hard film to know what to do with. The story it tells is very compelling in a number of ways, and what you see and learn in the film is very likely to stick with you for a while. That said, the movie itself is something close to bad, and irresponsible as well. This isn’t a matter when an ungifted documentarian hits upon an interesting subject (such as Kurt Kuenne’s 2008 film Dear Zachary) so much as it is the case of a possibly outright awful documentarian finding an interesting subject, and then trying to ruin it.

One of the tricks of The Imposter is that it’s told narrative style, replete with multiple plot twists. Treating real events as plot twists in documentaries is often viewed as dubious in the first place (though I think it works when handled carefully—see the 2007 documentary Crazy Love for a good example). Even so, I’m reluctant to give away everything that happens in The Imposter, as it seems like bad manners of me as a film critic. All the same, I can still tell you the meat of what happens in the movie. In 1994 Texas, a 13-year-old boy named Nicholas Barclay went missing one night, to the devastation of his family. Three years down the line, his family gets a call saying that Nicholas has been found in Spain. The person actually found in Spain was a twentysomething French criminal named Frederic Bourdin, who decided he would try to pass himself off as Barclay to have a home (among other reasons). Barclay’s family, hungry for a reunion and thereby incapable to look at the situation objectively, takes Bourdin in as young Nicholas.

It sounds like an interesting story, right? Well, it absolutely is. My beef with the movie comes in the way director Bart Layton (here making his feature film debut) handles his subjects. It’s worth noting that he has pretty unbelievable access to everyone involved in the case—remember that it happened between 1994 and 1997, and here he was able to get basically all of Nicholas Barclay’s family to be interviewed on camera, as well as Bourdin, who turns in a lengthy interview.

Layton seems to have been very influenced by Errol Morris (which I wholeheartedly support in theory; if you’re going to rip someone off, you might as well rip off the best), but here he overdirects the living hell out of the footage he has. He would have been served much better with fewer reenactments and longer stretches of people telling their story to the camera. As it is, he cuts up the interviews until what each person is saying is something close to unrecognizable; it’s a hazard of documentary filmmaking anyway, but here it seems like almost every single thing everybody says is taken out of context.

Meanwhile, it is as if Layton is making fun of his interviewees. It’s fine that by the end of the movie you don’t know whose side he’s on, but it seems a poor choice to actively seem to be trying to make everyone in his film look stupid. (Though, of course, this film has that mechanic in common with the forthcoming narrative film Compliance: It’s hard to be in the audience and not think that there’s no way you’d fall for what these people fell for.) Considering how serious the subject matter is, this feels like a grave error.

Because of how memorable the story it tells is, I’m reluctant to full-stop advise against seeing The Imposter. That said, you have to understand that it’s a step down from even a missed opportunity; a better description might be to call it sabotage. | Pete Timmermann

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