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Is Bart Layton's The Imposter a Criminal?

Apr 25, 2013 | Updated Jun 25, 2013

British director Bart Layton's The Imposter, which screened recently to popular acclaim at the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival, takes up the incredible story of a 23-year-old Frenchman who pretends to be the 14-year-old missing child of a Texan family and manages to convince his supposed siblings and mother that he is indeed that child, despite his brown eyes (the real Nicholas had blue eyes) and the fact that he is nine years older. A master liar, the man comes up with the most racy stories to explain the switch in eye color -- as well as why it is that little Nicholas, from a red-neck Texan town, showed up four years later in Spain with a French accent.

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The director does an amazing job at structuring the story as a suspense thriller. We wonder if the young imposter will succeed in his exploit, as the camera focuses on his talking head, telling us -- in hindsight -- about his nervousness in boarding the plane to reunite with his Texan "family." We wonder if he will slip up and be found out. We wonder why his supposed blood sister doesn't question him.

In other words, how did this crazy story get going?

The "imposter" is extremely compelling: this waif child who sneakily did all he could to enter a "family", as he never had any of his own. The new family, a garden variety Texan "white trash" group of sad creatures, including a couple of drug addicts -- also fascinates us. Why did they go along with this imposter?

And -- even more exciting -- more than midway through the film, the director adds a new shocking twist: what happened to the real Nicholas? The story takes an almost inappropriately humorous turn: with the introduction of a preposterous self-appointed detective who -- in a slapstick move -- begins digging up the lawn in search of Nicholas's corpse.

A sign of the film's success: boisterous applause.

Still The Imposter is not a completely accomplished film, and the issue lies with its inchoate meaning. In the beginning, we are set up to sympathize with the false "Nicholas." But just as obviously, we are meant to condemn him at the end. The last camera shot on Nicholas -- with its emphasis on his shaved head and peculiar grin -- purposefully makes him look like a serial killer. The director, when I questioned him at the film's premiere in New York last summer, referred to Nicholas as a "criminal."

Yes, the waif is a criminal, but his crime was to illegally obtain a passport and, because of his screwed up psyche, try to be part of a bereft family. Is this as monumental a crime as the murder of Nicholas, which -- while raised as a serious question -- is dropped and forgotten by the end of the film?

The director shrugged: "The imposter story is the main story of the film. He is the interesting character."

Another flaw with the movie: we hear of a drug addict brother -- who OD'ed, and who was possibly violent (could he have killed Nicholas?) -- but then this issue is dropped. Similarly, Nicholas's mother intrigues us with her woeful eyes and oddly balanced tone of voice, yet we learn nothing about her, as well. I was to learn only by speaking to a producer over a drink that the mother was a heroin addict.

What is missing in this entertaining, provocative, gripping film is a greater stake in what it means. Are we supposed to contemplate the ravages of pain that can drive a human being to go such crazy lengths to lie about who he is? No. Very little mention is made of the imposter's pain after the allusions to his broken background are dispensed with in the opening shots (the best in the film). Rather, we are swayed to look with suspicion on this imposter, as documents flash on the screen of the man's past "cons" in many different countries.

The same information flashing on the screen -- showing how this boy had tried dozens of different homes, never to fit in -- could be used differently, to explore the boy's pathology. Here it is used to condemn him: but condemn him for what? His desperation? The fact that he got families to lodge and feed him?

Perhaps he is just a bad seed.

"He is a rather unlikable manipulative person in real life," one person who worked on the production of the film confided.

The judgement is imposed onto the story, forced upon the viewer -- to the point that a few spectators leaving the theater could be heard to say, "What a creep!" I would have preferred more query into what made this man tick -- and what makes the Texan family tick as well.