Stranger Danger: Bart Layton’s The Imposter (2012) – DVD review
The more we find out, the less we know for certain, as one man’s shifting sense of reality helps to turn the documentary form inside-out.
(Bart Layton, 2012)
Some stories are too strange to be left to fiction. It’d be easy to do The Imposter – the tale of a guy who claims to be missing American teenager Nicholas Barclay, despite having a totally different accent and eye colour – as a drama. In fact, it has been, with the real-life events providing the inspiration for 2010 film The Chameleon. Yet doing this story as conventional drama could surely provide only conventional thrills: the short sharp shock of the inevitable twist, as the imposter is finally unmasked.
Far better, as Bart Layton does here, to unpick the whole saga from the perspective of everybody – including the imposter himself – and allow the testimony to cohere or clash as new information comes to light, a mosaic that doesn’t quite mesh. By putting the truth upfront, Layton theoretically limits himself but it puts the onus on ‘why’ rather than ‘what’. Why did a serial liar wanted by Interpol go to such extremes to ingratiate himself into an American family? Why did they let themselves be strung along? And why did it take the authorities so long to figure it all out?
This is perfect material for documentary, a Rashomon-esque layering of competing truths, but Layton goes one better by building the unreliability into the fabric of the film’s construction. It begins like a standard issue talking-heads study of a true life shocker… until the film literally rewinds and we pick it up from the imposter’s viewpoint. Suddenly, the stakes have changed. There’s no caption to announce who he is (and the film doesn’t reveal his true identity until, in the chronology of events, the authorities find out who he is). Nor is there the critical distance of framing or composition – he looks directly into camera, making us privy to his fantasies and indiscretions. It’s an uncomfortable experience: a confessional riddled with dark humour, charisma and the sneaking suspicion that we still might not be getting the whole story.
In doing so, Layton throws a spotlight on the whole genre. Documentary relies just as much on withheld information as fiction, and Layton constantly draws attention to this tension. The interviews exist in a weird bubble where the imposter is guiding us through events in the past tense, but his victims are still talking in the present tense, calling him ‘Nicholas’ and never referring to later events until the film catches up. Key witnesses only emerge mid-way through, aces up Layton’s sleeve who force us to look at things anew. Even the dramatic reconstruction is used sparingly but surgically to toy with our expectations, as Layton lets the imposter’s real voice bleed into the fictional reconstructions. The actor cast by Layton so perfectly matches his character’s mannerisms and posture that uncanny match cuts between the two leave you to question whether it’s actually the real-life person doubling for himself – the story’s theme made flesh.
It’s not a perfect film but a calculatedly imperfect one, which is perhaps more interesting. The final act throws one more curveball in a counter-accusation by the imposter, a twist too far that ruptures any pretence to discovering ‘the truth’. Which is how it should be. In its tricksy, disingenuous way, The Imposter is more honest than most documentaries because Layton deliberately prevents an otherwise tidily resolved story from finding closure. The film literally ends with people still searching for impossible answers, proving that while a lie is easy to expose, a life is too messy to ever get to the bottom of.