The Imposter is a chilling documentary about a young man who claims to be the missing child Nicholas Barclay. A few years after the thirteen-year-old Nicholas disappeared from San Antonio, Frédéric Bourdin showed up in Spain, claiming to be Nicholas and telling a horrific tale of kidnapping and torture. His hair and eyes were the wrong color, he was years older than Nicholas, and he spoke with a French accent. Bourdin came up with explanations for everything and successfully hoodwinked the Barclay family and a number of officials.
The filmmakers employ somewhat gimmicky but still effective reenactments and interview Bourdin, members of the grieving family, and several officials involved in the case. A compulsive con artist and identity thief, Bourdin comes across as open and engaging, though he claims to feel isolated enough and to dislike being touched. He thinks tactically rather than morally, considering what others will think of him rather than how they feel. He claims that he created countless personas (the numbers range between the dozens and hundreds) by the time he was twenty-three because he craved acceptance and felt uncomfortable with his own identity, one that lacked love from the beginning.
The gripping film falters in lending credence to Bourdin’s allegation that the Barclays killed Nicholas themselves. There is no evidence against them, and their accuser is a pathological liar. However, an investigator and an FBI agent become suspicious due to the shocking fact that the family welcomed someone who was clearly an imposter into their home. When first informed that Bourdin is not Nicholas, the sympathetic but possibly dysfunctional Barclays actively refuse to face the truth.
We never know what happened to Nicholas. The soundtrack, which includes 16 Horsepower’s cover of “Wayfaring Stranger,” is appropriately haunting. It is terrifying that master manipulators like Bourdin exist, calculating how their behavior can influence others at every turn. Just as baffling is what grief and denial can do. As Bourdin did not have a specific motive for what he did (he was not a spy or a terrorist, as one investigator thought–why else would he assume an American identity?), the Barclays likely didn’t accept Bourdin as Nicholas to cover up foul play. Their response to Bourdin was bizarre, but hardly a sign of guilt or of being anything more than the irrational beings we pretend we are not.