PLOT: A documentary/re-enactment of the bizarre saga that followed the 1994 disappearance of American teenager Nicholas Barclay and his subsequent reappearance three years later in Spain.
REVIEW: In a summer crammed with pricy remakes, reboots and sequels, it's refreshing beyond measure to find a movie that is intimate, quiet and profound – yet as suspenseful and exciting as any of those garish Hollywood products. It's even more of a cold shock to contemplate that said movie is based in fact. The phrase “the truth is stranger than fiction” has probably never applied more than it does here.
THE IMPOSTER is a documentary, but it's the documentary for people who don't care for them. Not only is the subject matter completely fascinating, but director Bart Layton has constructed a film that moves with the swiftness and palpable energy of a top-notch thriller, employing a very cinematic visual style and a crafty editing technique. He's in total control from start to finish, and it's as much of a joy to experience the director's string-pulling as it is to watch the central mystery unfold.
This is a case where the less you know, the more intrigued you'll be. I'll divulge the set-up: In 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay vanished mysteriously from his home in San Antonio, Texas. His family has no idea where he is, where he could have possibly gone. The absence lasts over three years, at which point most hope is lost... until a phone call from Spain announces the discovery of a strange, slightly disturbed young man who claims to be Nicholas Barclay. He's apparently been abducted, brain-washed and tortured, now speaks with a Spanish accent, and apparently has very little memory of his former life. The family is, of course, overwhelmed with relief, and accepts Nicholas back into their home wholeheartedly, almost no questions asked...
It's giving nothing away to say that there's more than meets the eye to the new Nicholas (the title makes that obvious, no?), but how would a complete stranger from another country know so much about Nicholas? And how far will his lie take him into the lives of the Barclay family?
Oh boy, that's just the beginning, folks, and if you think you already know where it goes from there, think again. To divulge further information would be spoiling the mystery, but more than that, the distinct pleasure that comes with genuinely having no idea where this is all going. So many times we sit in a theater and feel, even during the better films, that we know the beats of the story, the twists and turns, the inevitable conclusion. THE IMPOSTER strips that away early on, and it's like taking the seatbelt off. What an odd sensation it is to just go along for the ride without the warm security of predictability.
Not unlike the great documentarian Errol Morris, Layton recreates a large portion of the drama using actors; the effect has the glossy finish of a major feature, and it's beautifully, eerily shot by Lynda Hall and Erik Wilson. At the same time, the director intercuts scenes of the real people describing the strange events that followed “Nicholas'” return home; they wear dejected, haunted expressions, survivors of a grotesquely unique situation. We even hear from “the imposter” himself, but again, the less said about him, the better. I will say that there's a solid chance you won't meet a more compelling character this year or next, on screen or in real life.
THE IMPOSTER's third act is so surreal, chilling and yes, hard to believe, that you can't help but want to know more. Because this is reality, we're not served up a finale that wraps everything up in a tidy bow; there are almost as many questions on the way out as there were on the way in. But that's life, and life can be a sick, twisted, unpredictable bastard with a weird sense of humor – that's what really sticks long after THE IMPOSTER is over.