An even-keeled nonfiction account of an astounding true-crime mystery, Bart Layton's The Imposter thrives not only in mixing archival footage and interviews with dramatic recreations, but by maintaining a detached just-the-facts approach that, coupled with his decision to give equal time and weight to his various subjects' perspectives, heightens rather than dispels his central themes. Layton's documentary focuses on the 1994 disappearance of 13-year-old San Antonio resident Nicholas Gibson, whose family's misery was seemingly alleviated by news in 1997 that Nicholas had been found in Spain. Layton wastes no time revealing that bombshell to have been a sham perpetrated by Frédéric Bourdin, a 23-year-old orphan and grifter, who recounts in detail how his lifelong desire for familial love and acceptance led him to first impersonate a missing child and, once he had access to a police phone and a U.S. directory, to call various American police stations posing as a cop until he obtained information about Nicholas, whose lost-boy identity seemed like an ideal one to assume. That, logistically, Bourdin even got this far with his scam makes The Imposter a gripping tale of canny deception. Yet Layton's tale is bolstered by mounting suspense as Bourdin is forced to pass himself off as Nicholas to family members, authorities, and then, upon making it back to the U.S. as a citizen, an inquiring media.
No matter Bourdin's horrific childhood, which he describes as being marked by a racist grandfather who didn't accept his half-Arab identity, his actions were unquestionably abominable. Nonetheless, that fact is complicated by the question of why the Gibson family welcomed into their home a man whose stubbly face, bleached hair, and brown eyes (not to mention unmistakable French accent!) was not in sync with the young, naturally blond, blue-eyed Nicholas they lost. Was it just a case of grief-stricken relatives believing what they wanted to believe, regardless of the obvious evidence to the contrary? Or was it something far more sinister, as Bourdin (and a local private investigator) began to suggest once his scam started unraveling?
The Imposter shrewdly opts not to proffer its own hypothesis about the true reasons behind the Gibson family buying Nicholas' story, choosing instead to let conflicting possibilities crash up against each other, with issues of truth's slippery nature and the impossibility of completely knowing others' motivations hanging ominously in the air. Meanwhile, Layton's editorial structure is assured, especially in a quick cut from Nicholas's sister describing her younger brother's front teeth gap to Bourdin smiling to reveal a similar gap (an astounding bit of luck for Bourdin), and his staged sequences aid rather than hinder tension, even if their preponderance of stark shadows and studied camera angles make the film sometimes feel like one of production company A&E's TV programs.