In 1994 a 13 year old boy vanishes from his rural San Antonio town. Over 3 years later, his family receives a call from a Spanish children’s shelter claiming Nicholas Barclay has been found alive in Linares, Spain. But not so fast, this is called The Imposter. That tells you not everything should be taken at face value. Spellbinding documentary delves into the bizarre 1997 case whereby a French con artist claims to be a family’s long lost son.
Of all the evidence this account presents, it is the one-on-one interviews that captures the viewer’s attention most. Chief among the relevant participants is Frédéric Bourdin, the 23-year-old Frenchman and criminal who passed himself off as their lost child. In actuality, he’s 7 years older, has brown eyes and dark hair in contrast to their son’s blue eyes and blonde hair and speaks with an accent. We learn in detail how he was able to accomplish this seemingly impossible task. Or at least he explains what he did. We’re also introduced to Carey Gibson – the older sister of Nicholas Barclay, Beverly Dollarhide – their mother and Bryan Gibson – Carey‘s husband and Nicholas’ uncle. Representing law enforcement we meet Nancy Fisher, the former FBI Special Agent assigned to the case and Charlie Parker, a Private Investigator, who felt something was wrong.
Director Bart Layton has clearly studied the Errol Morris rule book of documentary filmmaking. That’s good. Key events, that were never filmed, are re-enacted using actors. Layton wisely doesn’t reveal anything before it’s absolutely positively necessary. As details evolve, the focus fluctuates between Frédéric Bourdin to the relatives of the victim. Who is this stranger and why would he claim to be their missing child? Why does the family welcome him as their son? You’ll have many more questions as the drama unfolds. By the end there are still those that go unanswered. As a investigative report it may raise issues it doesn’t, or rather cannot answer, but as a thriller it’s incredibly fascinating.
This is a study in human psychology as much as it is a missing persons case. Just when you think you have it all figured out, the audience is thrown another curve ball. The twisted story becomes even more perplexing as it plays out. There is a clear feeling of anxiety with the whole situation. The incidents resemble something sinister at times. The general uneasiness gives the viewer a dread that they stepped into a true life horror film. But horror from creepiness, not from actual gore. This reviewer hates relying on clichéd phrases like “truth is stranger than fiction” but please grant me the crutch of that hackneyed phrase because its so apropos. If this had been a work of fiction I would’ve faulted the saga for its implausibility. It’s too far-fetched. Yet these events actually happened. That’s the hardest thing to accept.