The dank Louisiana bayou is a perfect setting for The Chameleon, a ripped-from-the-headlines mystery where identity is as solid as quicksand. Based on a suspicious true-life case where the son of a troubled blue-collar family suddenly reappears in France after being kidnapped four years earlier, Jean-Paul Salomé's procedural follows an FBI agent's (Famke Jannsen) quest to uncover the secrets behind the disappearance. Instead of a family reunited, she finds a jigsaw puzzle with plenty of missing pieces.
Visibly shaken and vulnerable, Nick (Marc-André Grondin) returns to Baton Rouge, where his loving sister (Emilie de Ravin), decrepit mother (Ellen Barkin), and menacing half-brother (Nick Stahl) await. But this is no reunion, as the tense mood is discomforting, even vice-riddled, from the very beginning. The drastic disconnect between Nick, who now speaks with a French accent, and his family fluctuates in tone throughout, producing an eeriness that ultimately sculpts the film's thematic backbone. For this group, family is a dangerous word—each conversation forced, each hug a formality rather than a term of endearment.
On the surface, The Chameleon reeks of contrived melodrama, cinematically nondescript in almost every way. Salomé's artless compositions and muted pacing don't do anything to contradict that assessment. However, as the layers to Nick's contrived identity begin to peel away, and his supposed kin turn increasingly defensive, The Chameleon grows more enigmatic as a character mosaic.
At the center of this strangeness is the strained relationship between Nick and his mother, Kimberly, a chain-smoking heroin addict whose droopy eyes look as if they are literally going to cave into her skull. Barkin's powerhouse method performance brings suspense to the most mundane scenes that have no business being this effective. Thankfully, Grondin's Ripley-esque turn stands toe to toe against her raging ball of repression, and The Chameleon is at its best when the two share the screen. Their relationship as mother and son is based on a kindred unease, a shared trauma that crosses bloodlines.
If Barkin and Grondin create a swamp's worth of deceptive intricacies in their moments together, the rest of the cast is regulated to expository mop-up duty. Character motivation and narrative reasoning are usually spelled out erroneously, the most glaring example coming from Jannsen's persistent sleuth, whose hardnosed drive is summed up in one perfunctory story about a previous case. As a result, the investigatory aspect of the film rapidly turns from inconsequential to hokey, half-assed to the point of absurdity.
The Chameleon isn't so much about the possibility that Nick could be a poseur, but the reasons why this family might be going along with his deception. In this sense, Salomé deserves credit for posing more questions than he answers, allowing his lead characters to take on more depth in hindsight. But the layered material and performances deserve a more stylistically fractured mise-en-scène, an artistic sensibility the viewer can hold on to. Salomé fails to do this, and Stahl's thuggish theatrics and de Ravin's mushy weeping become indicators of the film's tendency toward cliché.
During the film's lengthy third act, a supporting character references "emotional profit" as a clear-cut motivation for one of the film's natural-born liars. Without the familiarly seedy template of sexual deviancy or monetary greed, The Chameleon bases its entire narrative on the quest for generational structure, mining a marshy emotional landscape where life-long grifters attempt to construct some kind of makeshift family. Despite the lackluster cinematic universe Salomé creates for them, there's genuine sadness in their prolonged war of attrition. Time does not heal old wounds, it just deepens them.