"From the producers of 'The Tillman Story' and 'Man on Wire,'" reads a description for "The Imposter" provided by the Sundance Film Festival, which might have added "No kidding." Documentarian Bart Layton's engaging investigation into a bizarre 1997 case in which a Spanish man impersonated a missing adolescent from San Antonio–convincing the boy's relatives that he was the real deal–combines non-fiction detective work with an alluring sense of mystery. Sustained by its weird-but-true hooks, "The Imposter" only suffers from being too enamored of its unknown variables to reach a satisfying whole.
The aforementioned documentaries provide a less apt description of the movie's central premise than imagining the prospects of "Catch Me If You Can" directed by Errol Morris; Layton's biggest coup involves a dominant interview with an outgoing Spanish man who remains unnamed for most of the movie. His espionage-like method of impersonating the missing boy, Nicholas Barclay, puts the movie firmly inside the anonymous man's head. Guided by a cosmic score and slickly constructed reenactments, "The Imposter" inhabits the con artist's perspective as he infiltrates a small Texas town, makes the local news and even manages to work his way back to high school. "It became the American dream," he recalls.
The ruse begins with a phone call to Barclay's sister that the impersonator makes at the beginning of the movie, preying on her fears with methodological precision. "I washed her brain," he says. "The Imposter" does that to its audience as well, drawing us into each twist in Fake Barclay's experiences while making it clear, by virtue of the movie's existence, that at some point someone must catch on. But even when they do, for each answered question, another begs for further inquiry.
The supporting characters flesh out this requirement. A local investigator named Charlie Parker, whose tactics seem lifted straight out of Raymond Chandler, grows increasingly suspicious of Barclay's return, begging a naive FBI agent to reopen the case. The question of how a complete outsider can recognize that Barclay has not actually returned from the abyss while his own family thinks they have found their boy poses the biggest question, and one that never gets fully resolved.
However, the apparent clarity of Fake Barclay's memories keep "The Imposter" consistently involving even as it branches it out in several confusing directions. When the man's identity finally becomes clear, the magnitude of his scheme begs for further analysis, but Layton instead takes the plot in a surprising new direction that redefines everything that came before. It's an exciting, even shocking experience to follow the accumulation of clues, but there are just enough of them to make you wish Layton had added a few more.
A jail cell interview with the perpetrator conducted by Connie Chung concludes in media res, right when the trickster begins to explain himself. The decision to leave out such elaboration keeps "The Imposter" from turning into the definitive work on its subject. Still, the case speaks for itself, and everything onscreen retains that same fundamental intrigue. But it also lacks any cumulative insight into Fake Barclay's psyche or a confident reason for his family's compliance. Easy to watch but littered with holes only noticeable once the credits roll, "The Imposter" borrows the sly methods of its hoodwinking protagonist to trick its viewers into the expectation of a single payoff. Instead, it offers several minor ones.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? With a strange plot difficult to describe on paper, "The Imposter" faces a tough proposition if it lands a theatrical release, but a television or VOD deal holds some potential. Its main life, however, lies on the festival circuit.