The batshit story of how a twentysomething French con artist fooled a grieving Texan family into believing he was their missing teenage son has already been immortalized in the little-seen The Chameleon, starring Famke Janssen and Nick Stahl. But truth that’s stranger than fiction deserves to be told as truth, and The Imposter, which translates the story into a “conversation starter” doc, is gripping as both a tall tale and an expert Errol Morris ripoff.
About the former: In 1994, one Nicholas Barclay, a troublemaking 13-year-old, went missing. Three years later, he was reported as having materialized in Spain, claiming to have been captive in a demonic sex slave ring. His family heartily embraced him—despite his having a French accent, clearly dyed blond hair, different eye colors, visible copious facial stub and no strong memory of his life prior. Family members explain away the latter as a product of his alleged torture, but what about the other discrepancies? In actuality, he was one Frédéric Bourdin, a 23-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent who had a history—and a future—of whimsically stealing identities.
Interviewed some 15 years after the incidents, Bourdin is casually unapologetic and blithely cagey. In other words, he’s exactly the kind of sociopath that attracts Errol Morris. As Morris did with David Harris (The Thin Blue Line) and Robert McNamara (The Fog of War), director Bart Layton tries to get Bourdin to relax and open up, not about his crimes—to which he long ago confessed—but about what drove him to into such unique sociopathy. Bourdin remains an enigma, but so do the family members and townsfolk, whose duping by someone so obviously unlike Nicholas represents a shared psychosis, a collective self-delusion based on the belief that lies are nicer than the truth.
Layton’s one dramatic departure from Morrisisms is in the beautiful interviews, which are staged in CinemaScope with dramatic lighting, emphasizing their performance nature. This move is fitting when the family folk are trying to justify their gullibility. They’re less so in the questionable final stretch, when a busted Bourdin floats the notion that the Barclays murdered their son. Could the Barclays be lying, as the film tacitly sort-of suggests? Only if you believe the complete lack of hard evidence and the word of a known liar.