The Instant Movie Club: The Imposter
Every week, your friends at Culture Blues get together to watch a movie from their Netflix Instant queue. Then, they get together for some imported Coca-Cola and answer a series of discussion questions. This is The Instant Movie Club.
This week we’re watching The Imposter. This documentary (snore!) centers on a young Frenchman who claims to be the missing son of a grieving Texas family.
Next week: The Long Goodbye. Robert Altman and Elliot Gould offer their take on Raymond Chandler's most famous creation, private eye Philip Marlowe.
The Imposter ends with the two opposing parties (the family of Nicholas Barclay and his imposter Frederic Bourdin) basically telling each other to fuck off. How does this alter or reinforce our feelings about them.
Jeremiah White: For Barclay’s family, their anger is obviously understandable. Who wouldn’t want to hurl a few expletives at the man who pretended to be a missing teenager and then accused you all of murder when he was found out? This is a rare moment when the family gets to comment on the case itself, rather than walk us through their feelings during the actual events. Hearing so little of their story since Bourdin’s arrest reduces them to witless rubes at best and a murderous clan of hicks at worst. As it stands, they are victims (sensational but unfounded accusations aside), but I can’t work up any sympathy for folks who can be deceived for months by a ruse that movie MVP Charlie Parker dismantles in a few minutes by looking at photographs of ears… or who in 1997 were shocked to discover that Coca-Cola had made it to Europe.
Jeff Hart: Just a quick aside here: movie MVP Charlie Parker is right! That dude is rolling through town with his pickaxe, tailing teenagers he suspects might blow up the military base. Awesome. As for the Barclay clan, it’s hard not to suspect something fishy is going on when every law enforcement figure interviewed seems to be salivating for that one missing piece of evidence (some even going as far as to try digging it up). The sister, Carey Gibson, letting some rage slip doesn’t surprise me – she’s been conned by Bourdin, and maybe the rest of her family. She’s a rube, yeah, but a sympathetic one, and I can’t fault her for hoping for the best. What about Bourdin?
Jeremiah White: Bourdin’s final callous statement casts him as nothing more than an opportunistic con man, which stands in stark contrast to the way he portrays himself early on, as a lost young man looking for a place to belong or to relive the childhood he never had. The Imposter places us in Bourdin’s shoes more than the family’s, giving the audience a behind-the-scenes account of his deceptions. Yet his final line may be the only time we see the true Bourdin, which makes me wonder how much we can trust anything he’s said. Maybe I shouldn’t have been taking everything the lifelong flim-flam man said at face value, but hey - he seemed like a pretty nice guy.
Jeff Hart: I don’t think callous/opportunistic and ‘lost young man’ have to be mutually exclusive. I wouldn’t go as far as to describe Bourdin’s interview as remorseful, but I do think he’s able to look back at his past actions and assess them honestly. But yeah, why should we believe this guy about anything? Because he does seem pretty nice, right? It’s kind of amazing that he’s the most sympathetic character we meet. Maybe we’ve been taken in. Smartly, director Bart Layton puts those harsh words at the end of the film, breaking the hold Bourdin might have had on viewers. DTA!
Exploring a publicized 15-year old case with little if any new information doesn’t leave much opportunity to surprise the audience. How does The Imposter create drama and tension?
Jeremiah White: Three things. First, by introducing us to the imposter right off the bat, Layton eliminates one mystery for those unfamiliar with the case, but allows everyone to experience Bourdin’s doubts and fears as he suddenly finds himself in a lie much larger than he intended. Second, the carefully timed release of key information. For example, we know all along this is not Nicholas Barclay, but we don’t know until the second half that Bourdin has impersonated teenagers many times before and is wanted by Interpol. It would make sense to offer this up when we first meet Bourdin, but releasing it just as the plot is thickening and the walls are closing in on him gives it more punch. And finally, the generic thriller music. The score announces unsettling developments and new mysteries as clearly as video game music indicates a newly discovered area or an upcoming battle.
Jeff Hart: Also, the whole maybe-the-Barclays-did-it subplot that Layton pretty much springs out of nowhere. Like any good twist, it forces us to reevaluate everything that we’ve seen before. And the music cues aren’t just limited to generic thriller scores – there’s a fun first-day-at-school (for a 23 year-old) sequence scored to David Bowie’s “Queen Bitch” and our man Charlie Parker gets his own musical intro because Layton knows he’s a charismatic old badass. The Imposter reminded me of this essay The AV Club’s Scott Tobias wrote about documentaries and how they should avail themselves of more cinematic techniques. Like Tobias, I prefer my documentaries with some swagger.
Jeremiah White: The Imposter effectively crafts a thriller out of a real-life case, but it feels like it’s straining to be stranger than fiction, especially when you consider how easily a handful of experts exposed Bourdin. Despite a bizarre and intriguing story, colorful characters and a slick visual style, The Imposter is slightly less than the sum of its parts.
Jeff Hart: Disagree! The Imposter doesn’t strain to be stranger than fiction because it is stranger than fiction. This guy was on the local news talking about getting raped for fuck’s sake! Best documentary I’ve seen since Exit From The Gift Shop.