In 1994, a 13-year-old boy named Nicholas Barclay was reported missing from his home in San Antonio, Texas. Three and a half years later, he turned up in Spain of all places, to the obvious delight of his worried family.
Or did he?
Who this person is and how he insinuated himself into the lives of unsuspecting strangers is the subject of "The Imposter," a gripping documentary filled with the kind of twists, turns and dramatic character revelations of a page-turner mystery. This is a movie in which earlobes provide a crucial plot point, just to give you an idea of the kind of detail we get into here.
Director Bart Layton takes a story that was already fascinatingly weird to begin with and makes it even more compelling by structuring it as a shadowy film noir, offering information in expertly paced, precisely measured amounts to maximize suspense. His inventive approach includes reenactments of some events, or as he describes them, "subjective visualizations" of what the key figures are describing in their interviews. Some viewers may have a problem with this tactic - it's one that James Marsh also employed recently in "Man on Wire" and "Project Nim" - but they make sense within this stylish aesthetic.
Layton doesn't judge any of the people involved, but rather uses this extraordinary situation in which they all found themselves to explore the nature of truth: how we manufacture it and what we will allow ourselves to believe. "Rashomon"-style recollections of events reinforce the sensation that what we're watching is disorienting and thrilling at once.
At the center, and happily serving as our tour guide from the very beginning, is the imposter himself: a French-Algerian man named Frederic Bourdin who thoroughly explains what he did, step by step. It's as if he's even impressed with himself for having pulled off this scam; he repeatedly breaks into a boyishly proud grin as he recalls his actions. This person is obviously dangerous and untrustworthy to us but it's also easy to see how he could charm his way into or out of any situation. He's cunning - he's a survivor.
Bourdin shares how he discovered the name of the missing boy and assumed his identity. After manipulating various authorities in Spain, he was on his way to the United States, accompanied by Nicholas' excited but understandably confused older sister, Carey, who'd flown out to retrieve him.
One look at this guy, with his brown hair and dark eyes, and it's obvious he's not the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Nicholas. Never mind the fact that he was also six years older than Nicholas would have been (and looks it), and that he spoke in heavily-accented English. Carey, Nicholas' mother, Beverly, and the rest of the family were so happy to have their boy back, they were willing to accept anything - especially once the fake Nicholas began telling them stories about the life-altering physical and psychological torture he supposedly suffered at the hands of his captors.
Whether the family members are truly that gullible - or they have something to hide themselves, as it's suggested at one point - it's clear that they've lived long and difficult lives. Perhaps the reemergence of the long-lost Nicholas provided a desperately needed source of optimism, one they couldn't bring themselves to question.
Once Bourdin's actions are clear, "The Imposter" then becomes a question of motive. And once you think you've got that figured out, Layton reveals more characters and more twists, including a folksy, no-nonsense private investigator who could easily be the subject of his own reality series on A&E.
With the help of beautifully seamless editing and an eerie score, Layton moves between interviews with Bourdin (now in his mid-30s) and Nicholas' family and reconstructions of events, creating a fluid energy that's spellbinding until the very end.
"The Imposter," from Indomina Releasing, is rated R for language. Running time: 95 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.