Puzzled, by Jack Fleischer
Let’s get this out of the way – I loved The Imposter. This documentary unfolds like a stinking corpse flower; equal parts majestic and revolting. I spent the whole of the 95-minute runtime skeeved, incredulous, and aggravated that it had the stones to actually come to an end. There’s a lot to talk about here, so my one request is that people go out and see this movie, so we all can chat. I want to dissect this like a formaldehyde soused bio student with a pile of lab rats.
Ripe for a 48 Hours/Dateline true-to-life-mystery-of-the-week centerpiece, this doc begins with the disappearance of a young towheaded tyke. Nicholas Barclay was last seen on a San Antonio playground on or around June 13 of 1994. A blue-eyed blonde boy speckled with small tattoos and described as, “13 going on 30.” The police were frequent visitors to his house, and frankly his disappearance was treated as sub-spectacular. On it’s face it seemed like a standard runaway story.
Then, three years later, his mother received a call at work – from the Spanish authorities. A young man had been discovered. He held no documentation. He claimed to be Nicholas Barclay. With the family in shock, Barclay’s older sister left the states for the first time in her life in order to identify him and bring him home.
It was a warm, if awkward, reunion. Nicholas seemed to have aged exponentially. He was quiet, and when he spoke he seemed to have an accent. His eyes and hair were now dark brown. All this might seem out of place if not for his incredibly harrowing story of abduction into an international military sex, drug, and torture ring. The stories Nicholas told even horrified the FBI agents sent to debrief him.
Nicholas returned home and the story doesn’t stop there. Soon a shit-kicking Texas P.I. and a renowned child psychiatrist get involved, and the story just gets more and more bizarre.
Since this is a well-documented case, it’s not a true spoiler to say that “Nicholas Barclay” was not who he claimed to be. More than a simple unraveling of an “imposter,” this film succeeds because as fascinating as the story’s surface may be, the real life characters coupled with well crafted storytelling, propel this doc to a whole new level.
A documentary can suffer for many simple reasons. Poor interview subjects, sparse and repetitive documentary footage, material overshadowed by message, poor cinematography, and so on. The Imposter suffers none of this. It’s cinematic, riveting, and driven by the kind of characters that are so colorful they’d crush verisimilitude in a fictional tale.
The story is presented with a blend of home video and news footage, subject interviews, and reenactments. Lest the word “reenactment” conjure up images of actors in ill fitting wigs shot through a greasy lens, these reenactments are treated different to those on true-crime television. These actors’ performances are locked into the interviews, merging the story and the storytellers. I haven’t seen anything quite like it. Director Bart Layton, who first discovered the story in a magazine, was so intrigued with the tale that he started documenting it on his own dime. His choice to blend interviews and reenactments give the story a dark nightmare-like quality, a feeling reinforced thanks to glowing cinematography from DP Eric Alexander Wilson (Submarine).
If I were to complain about anything, it’s that The Imposter ends on a puzzling note. After a number of breathtaking twists and turns, you’re made to believe that a large revelation is about to come to light … yet it never arrives. I’m upset that the other shoe never drops. True, or not, it feels like the filmmakers were searching for a poetic end and instead pained the apologue into a corner.
I suppose dropping the story at this point is designed to make the audience hungry for more. I’ll bite. I’ll take my friends to see this. I’ll watch The Imposter again, looking for clues – and if Layton and his crew won’t give me the answers I’m looking for, I’ll go looking for it myself.