Every now and then in the world of cinema, there comes a film which can be described as genre-defining. Notable examples include 1999’s Blair Witch Project, 2008’s Cloverfield and, most recently, 2010’s Monsters. That’s not to assume that they’re particularly good or bad, just that they’re shot in a style which is new to cinema-goers. It would be safe to say that The Imposter joins that list.
The film itself is based upon the real-life story of the Barclay family from Texas, and their 13-year-old son Nicholas. In 1994, Nicholas vanishes without a trace, leaving the family to deal with the devastating loss of their child. Then, three years later, a call comes through from Spain saying that he has been found, and that he wants to come home. However, the boy who is returned to them isn’t all that he seems. What follows will warp your sense of right and wrong, turn your morality on its head, and leave you utterly perplexed as to how it ever happened in the first place.
To research the background and assume that you’ll know what to expect would be doing a great injustice to director Bart Layton’s immensely clever and intricately constructed film. Shot in the style of an indie documentary, there is a natural apprehension on the part of the viewer that the feature could be staid and dull – however, it soon becomes apparent that boredom will not be an issue.
What Layton does very well is to chop and change between characters, keeping our attention firmly fixed on what’s in front of us, while allowing the narrative to flow. One visually striking technique employed here is to have a character speak, but then cut to another interviewee mouthing the same words, thereby almost assuming control of that person. Additionally, the use of recorded footage of the real family – in the form of home movies and recorded media footage – is interspersed with the actors who are playing them for the purposes of the film, adding a greater depth and realism to the piece.
Because each ‘interview’ is done on an individual basis, the audience isn’t afforded the luxury of any tell-tale signs and body language which might give an indication and hints of mistruth – something which can sometimes be seen when two people are interacting together. Here, what you see is what you get – and whether you believe it is up to you. Therein lies the trick to this film; the underlying theme is one of deceit and you never really know what the truth is and what’s an outright lie.
That’s not to say that there aren’t issues with the film. The main problem here is the pacing. The first third of the film feels slow and laboured, whereas the final section whizzes along at such a frenetic pace that it feels like we’ve missed something. In other films, this wouldn’t seem like such a problem – however due to the almost personal nature of this film, where each character is talking directly to the screen, it engenders a sense of confusion which could be costly considering the film is only 91 minutes long.
Building this web of deception to an abrupt conclusion, it’s only in the last few minutes of the film where you truly appreciate the scale of what actually happened and how one person could have gotten away with so much.
In summary, The Imposter is an inventive and highly original film. The acting is chillingly convincing, and the style represents a whole new genre of film-making. You’ll have to watch it for yourself to see if you believe us…