Most documentaries are obsessed with truth. That is, getting to the bottom of it, uncovering hidden facts or exposing terrible deceits. Not so The Imposter. Under the sure hand of Brit director Bart Layton, it’s a film about truths, plural, Layton’s gorgeously-shot jaw-dropper of a documentary chipping away at the notion of subjective truth, and the lies we tell ourselves and each other.
Needless to say, this is brain food cinema. At the centre of it all is a case so bizarre that it’s almost the dictionary definition of ‘stranger than fiction’. In 1993, 13-year-old Texan boy Nicholas Barclay went missing. Three years later, his family received a phone call from Spanish authorities informing them that they had him in their custody. The teenager sent back to Texas, though, looks nothing like the Nicholas the Barclays remember – which doesn’t stop them welcoming him into their home as their long-lost son anyway.
It’s a story that boggles the mind. “It sounded like something that couldn’t possibly have taken place in the real world,” Layton says of the case. As remarkable as the story is, though, Layton’s delivery of it surpasses all expectations, because this is no ordinary documentary.
For a start, the reconstructions are masterfully handled, shot through a noir-ish haze and affording the film a vital thriller edge. Cleverly playing around with documentary conventions, Layton weaves the interview material (he speaks with all of the Barclays and the titular ‘imposter’) with this reconstruction footage, creating something fast-paced, slick and totally involving.
One half talking heads doc, other half gripping thriller, Layton’s stylised approach could easily have turned into a bubblegum conceit with little substance. Luckily, the director uses his impressive visuals intelligently, doggedly digging at those bigger issues – the ones regarding truth and lies. The result is as bright as it is entertaining.
To reveal any more about the film would spoil its numerous surprises. Suffice to say, it’s populated with a cast of memorable characters (hangdog PI Charlie Parker seems to have stepped right out of a ‘40s noir), and screeches toward a conclusion that will have you asking just as many questions as Layton’s film answers.
If it were a Hollywood thriller starring Nicolas Cage, we’d be writing The Imposter off as implausible rubbish. As it is, Layton’s film is one of the finest documentaries of the year – and one of the most riveting real-life thrillers you’ll ever see. 4/5