Nicknamed “The Chameleon” by the press, Bourdin is known for having assumed untold hundreds of identities; Bart Layton’s film wisely chooses to focus on just one of those cases. Luckily, it’s a doozy — one so unbelievable, you wouldn’t believe it without the proof.
In 1994, in San Antonio, Texas, a 13-year-old boy named Nicholas Barclay disappeared. Three years later, he turned up overseas, claiming to have been abducted and sexually abused by the military, prompting an FBI investigation. His Texas family welcomed him back with open arms, even though he didn’t look quite the same, not to mention spoke with a French accent.
And that’s because Nicholas wasn’t Nicholas at all, but Bourdin, a then-23-year-old Frenchman.
And then things got weird.
Through a mix of interviews with the very people involved in this utterly bizarre case — primarily Bourdin and Barclay family members — and rather skillfully done re-enactments, Layton tells a story that enrages as much as it engages. While the viewer feels sorry for the family, he or she also wonders how they could be so easily duped. A possible answer opens a further can of twists, which allows Layton to manipulate his audience just as Bourdin manipulated the Barclays.
The Imposter shares a producer with 2008’s Oscar-winning Man on Wire, and while the documentarians are different, the films share a kinship in cinematic execution and mood. It’s a shame this film wasn’t deemed eligible for consideration for the current Academy Awards race, as it’s every bit as deserving. The entire piece is conflict writ large, with Bourdin going down as one of the screen’s most ruthless villains of recent memory. —Rod Lott