Deceptions & Lies: Bart Layton’s “The Imposter”

Disturbingly haunting and so outrageous it’s hard to believe, The Imposter sketches the real-life story of master con artist Frederic Boudin.  Boudin, a smooth-talking French man from a broken home, had been making a living impersonating abused and neglected children when he decided to pose as Nicholas Barclay, a boy who went missing in 1994 from San Antonio. Though Boudin beared no resemblance to the missing child (Barclay was an all-American blonde-haired, blue-eyed type; Boudin, an ebony-haired, brown-eyed French-Algerian nearly 7 years older), the Barclay family expressed no doubt that Boudin was their long-lost son when he resurfaced in Spain 3 years later.

How could a family not recognize their own flesh and blood?” is the maddening question that insistently hovers over The Imposter. “How,” as the real Nicholas’s sister, Carey Gibson, so eloquently exclaims, “could the Barclays be so fucking stupid?!”

But it’s not just the Barclays Boudin dupes: the FBI, the American embassy, the eager media impatient to tell the incredible tale of a missing boy’s safe return home-all fall for Boudin’s not-so-convincing get up. As we watch clips of Boudin’s interviews with local news stations-his hair clearly bleached, his answers delivered in a charming, unmistakably French accent-we wonder how any rational person with functioning eyes and half a brain could have believed such an obvious charade. The idea that this man was Nicholas Barclay was preposterous, borderline absurd.

The Imposter gains its momentum from this sheer improbability. But what makes the story even more compelling is that it’s absolutely true. British director Bart Layton relays this perplexing tale from multiple perspectives, including Boudin’s, the master of disguise himself. In much the same way that Hitchcock forces us to identify with a schizophrenic killer in his groundbreaking Psycho, Layton compels us to feel sympathy for this diabolical con man who, as a boy, was unloved and left alone. Layton does a genius job of distracting us from Boudin’s totally despicable behavior: throughout much of the documentary, we find ourselves susceptible to his distorted fun house logic, even enthralled by his sociopathic charm. In many ways, we’re like the Barclays themselves: naïve and ready to be fooled.

When Boudin makes some troubling accusations 45 minutes later, we’re ready to believe him-despite the fact that he’s made a career of deceiving people. He’s manipulative, convincing, charming, there’s even some well-founded evidence to support his suspicions. But truth is hard to pin down in The Imposter. Without giving too much away, about halfway through the documentary the primary question is no longer whether a family could plausibly mistake a stranger for their son- it’s why they would. As Layton shifts from the grieving, simple, small town family to the hard-boiled, film-noir type cop to Boudin himself, we find ourselves flung between competing versions of events but uncertain of any of their validity: we’re in a disorienting courtroom, each party testifying on its own behalf-and each accusingly pointing a finger at someone else.

Thrilling, baffling, suspenseful, The Imposter is a must see for those who relish mysteries…but are at ease without ever finding the answers.

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