Tuesday, 21 August 2012

[Review] The Imposter - Master manipulator

In 1993, thirteen year old Texan Nicholas Barkley went missing on his way home from basketball only to reappear three years later, in Spain. However upon his return home that people begin to suspect all is not as it seems. 

A big hit at Sundance (where it was nominated for the grand jury world documentary prize) it recieved a limited release in July State side and is due to release this week, August 24th, here in the UK. 

Speaking in depth about Bart Layton's documentary is going to be a truly difficult thing to do without lessening the experience for anyone who hasn't seen it. So if you want a light but completely spoiler free review here you are: The Imposter is an 'enjoyable' docu-thriller about manipulation and perception. It's stylish 'Fincher-esque' reconstructions and unusual structure allows the ever-twisting narrative to keep the viewer engaged. However, I urge you not to trust it...

That's your warning, what follows will not contain any blatant spoilers but I will talk about the plot in some detail so if you're planning on checking this one out the time to leave is... Now!

A plot twist is a device used to undermine the expectations of the audience, whether that is an unexpected shift in tone or character depends on the nature of the twist. It is however pretty clear that the The Imposter is not a film driven by a twist like, and I say this to get it out of the way Catfish, which I can't help but feel this film will be compared to. It should be obvious to all that the boy emerging from Spain in 1997 is not the same as the one who went missing from Texas, after all the clue's in the name. Yet it's still rather perplexing that the film shows us the events that led one Frédéric Bourdin to assume the identity of the boy within the first thirty minutes of the film. Initially I wrote this off as a (poor) choice by director Layton in an attempt to get the audience to sympathize with Bourdin's actions. He's presented as a scarred teen desperate for affection to play off against the rather ignorant American family that we struggle to relate to. It is only at the end of the film's second act when it becomes apparent to what The Imposter is really about.

Like Abbas Kiarostami's 1990 film Close-Up, which used the curious incident involving a young man's impersonation of famous Iranian film maker Mohsen Makhmalbaf as an attempt to analyse our perception of identity in relation to the role of a director and actor. The Imposter uses the events following 'Nicholas' return to America as an attempt to show the power the storyteller (as well as the editor) has to manipulate our perception of 'truth.'

The problem is that its approach is much too heavy handed. Rather than allowing the audience to make their own judgements of the people on screen by their own account (like for example Kurosawa's Rashomon) the film presents them and their agendas in such a way that makes us doubt the authenticity of everybody involved infront of or behind the camera. So if we then say the point of the film was that truth is subjective, that all these people are giving an honest account, why does it deliberately go out of it's way to portray the family as ignorant and suspicious? Bourdain as a scarred but charming man? Why does it only relay the facts after it allows itself to indulge in another dramatic fade to black? In the end you can't help but feel that the real truth is that the story just wasn't as interesting as Bart Layton wanted it to be.

Strangely the film has a darkly comic vibe to it. However by the end it developeds into mean-spirited exploitation such as a moment towards the end of the film when our old 70-something Private Investigator arrives at the house formally owned by the Barkley's and proceeds to dig a gaping hole in back garden where he believes the body of Nicholas may be stashed. You can't help but feel that they're making light of the disappearnce of a child. In the Satelite uplink Q&A with both director Layton and Producer Simon Chinn (I could be wrong about this) stated that the family were happy with the finished film whilst Bourdin has both vowed never to see it and publically thrashing it on Youtube, I find this an ironic twist considering I know which one of the two comes off better in the end.  

Despite it's clear strengths, I just can't recommend The Imposter. It's attempt at making the audience question our own understanding of truth is undone by it's heavy handed approach, the fact that it withholds information from the audience to deliver a cheap thrill and the general nastiness of it's tone make all add up to make a film that feels rather cold and dishonest. But that is just my perception...


See ya next time, folks!

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