The Imposter: cuckoo clocked

There’s a pattern emerging here. None of the last few regular movies I’ve been to see have made much of an impression on me, all of them feeling both overly contrived and stalely predictable as well as being at least half an hour too long. The feature-length documentaries I’ve caught recently have on the other hand all been fantastic, as gripping as Hitchcock in his prime, and to round off a month in which I’ve already been floored by Searching For Sugarman and Ai Weiwei – Never Sorry here’s another scarcely believable true story: The Imposter, directed by Bart Layton.

The Imposter is told from the point of view of a wily 23 year old chancer who in 1997 improvised his way out of a possible prison sentence by impersonating a teenager who went missing from his Texan home three and a half years previously. Incredibly, the fact that the conman was in custody in Spain, spoke English with a heavy French accent and looked nothing like the missing boy didn’t stop both the relevant authorities and the boy’s family accepting him as who he claimed to be, though you’d think that his insistence on wearing sunglasses and hooded clothing might have been a clue that something was up. As it turns out, it’s possible that the family might have had an ulterior motive in being so willing to believe that their boy had returned in a twist that, if true, would test one’s suspension of disbelief if you encountered it in the slickest of Hollywood thrillers.

The director’s decision to present the imposter’s deception upfront is a sound one, as what he sacrifices in terms of keeping the audience in suspense he more than makes up for in the extraordinary interview footage with the seemingly completely candid and highly articulate confidence trickster. He’s clearly an intelligent and resourceful individual and capable of expressing complicated and conflicting thought processes, though how he hoped to evade eventual detection is beyond all understanding. We also hear about events from the family’s point of view and see  home video of the missing boy, as well as reconstructions of key episodes in the story using actors. It’s a sad and wrenching chain of events, and it’s to the director’s credit that it’s been rendered so fascinating without ever seeming unduly voyeuristic or exploitative. Towards the end we start getting startling new perspectives on both the family and the hitherto surprisingly sympathetic cuckoo in their midst, and while the film ends with certain key questions unresolved it certainly feels anything but anti-climactic. Truth can be much stranger than fiction, and this another documentary that’s much more intriguing than your average Summer blockbuster.

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