By their nature, documentaries aren’t usually suspenseful. Laying out a series of already known facts isn’t generally a way to build tension, but director Bart Layton does just that with The Imposter, an assured, engrossing documentary about a French con artist who managed to successfully impersonate a missing Texas teenager, at least for a few months. The story of Nicholas Barclay’s disappearance and subsequent faked reappearance is the definition of “truth is stranger than fiction,” with two different fascinatingly twisted true-life dramas coinciding.
Layton does a great job of slowly revealing the facts without ever coming off like he’s stringing the audience along. His striking, cinematic style combines subtle re-enactments with candid interviews, often blending the two to demonstrate how people’s perceptions, both real and imagined, influenced their roles in the ordeal. Even for people who already know the whole story (it was the subject of an equally riveting 2008 New Yorker article, as well as a poorly reviewed fiction feature in 2010), Layton manages to craft tense, edge-of-your-seat moments out of such mundane occurrences as waiting for a fax or digging a hole in the ground.
The question of what happened to the real Nicholas Barclay has never been answered, and Layton allows his subjects to speculate without making any final judgments. Likewise, Layton shows the charisma of Nicholas’ imposter without trying to analyze or deconstruct his motives. The story is astonishing enough on its own, and The Imposter succeeds in enhancing its immediacy and intensity.