The most diabolical villain in movies this year takes you into his confidence in the opening minutes of Bart Layton's documentary The Imposter. In 1994, a 13-year-old boy named Nicholas Barclay vanished on a walk back to his San Antonio home. Three years later, news surfaced that Nicholas had been found — in Spain. A short time later his family stood in an airport lobby, opening their arms to their missing child. It didn't seem to matter that he now had dark stubble. Or that his blue eyes were now brown. Or that he spoke with a French accent.
"Nicholas" had answers for those things — but by that time in The Imposter, we're well aware that he is not Nicholas. He's a predatory Gallic grifter named Frederic Bourdin, then 23, who got hold of a U.S. directory overseas and started cold-calling American police stations in search of missing-persons cases. Encouraged by Layton's camera, Bourdin, a cunning opportunist whose smirk you want to slap off his face, walks us through each step of the deception, aided by the good intentions of bureaucrats who shrugged and swallowed their skepticism once Nicholas' own sister laid eyes on him — and embraced him as her own.
"How do you not recognize your own child?" is the question The Imposter cleverly dismantles and complicates as Layton lays out this flabbergasting tale. At every twist of the story, not even Bourdin can believe he didn't get busted: the sharp editing allows us to see how the most tenuous of matching details — the gap in his teeth, Nicholas' own history as a wild child — could tilt the judgment of a grieving family desperate to believe their child was alive. Unless they knew from the outset this wasn't the real Nicholas ... and here Layton, through Bourdin and a dogged investigator, introduces a possibility that shifts The Imposter from a study of perhaps willful delusion into the realm of tabloid TV.
Truth be told, there's a bit too much tabloid TV in Layton's dramatic re-enactments, which don't need all the rain and shadows and ooh-scary heightening effects. But they reinforce the movie's theme about the ways people construct narratives to shape what they want or need to believe. Bourdin, the movie's heartless tale-spinner, suggests he started concocting his hustles to get the love he was denied as a kid — a rationale we may want to accept, just because the truth that someone could be so pathologically callous about exploiting suffering families is almost too bleak to contemplate. The unsettling question The Imposter leaves dangling is whether he got the family he deserved.