On June 13th, 1994, shortly after calling home and saying that he needed a ride home, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay vanished from his hometown of San Antonio, Texas. Nicholas was loved by all, and the pain and distress over his disappearance drained his mother and sister dry, who desperately searched for him to no avail. Three years after his disappearance, a phone call comes in: Nicholas had been found in Linares, Spain, roughly 5,000 miles away across the Atlantic ocean, practically on the other side of the world. The events leading directly to that phone call and the twisted tale that follow it make up the story of The Imposter, a wild true crime documentary by first-time feature filmmaker Bart Layton.
Without revealing too many of the movie's fascinating secrets, The Imposter is primarily a portrait of how people struggle to cope with loss. Layton spotlights the members of Nicholas Barclay's family (mainly his mother, Beverly Dollarhide, and his older sister, Carey Gibson) as they lead us through the dizzying emotional rollercoaster of Nicholas' disappearance and his sudden re-appearance, and then on down the rabbit hole as the story begins to develop in what may be the least likely way possible. As the movie continues, Layton slowly expands his scope to include various officials, investigators, and acquaintances of Nicholas and his family, in an attempt to paint the broadest and most impartial picture possible.
Latyon's directorial style is somewhat similar to Errol Morris' 1988 true-crime documentary The Thin Blue Line. Like Morris, Layton highlights and accentuates the interview segments with feature-film style re-enactments that depict the participants' stories. Layton also goes a step further, allowing the staged material to "interact" with the speaker. Selected words spoken by the actual family members will be timed to Layton's footage, putting "dialogue" into his actor's mouths, and he occasionally plays with the audio, often treating their comments to sound as if they're being heard over a phone line. Combined with an eerie dramatic score by Anne Nikitin, The Imposter is memorably cinematic, and through that tone, its grip on the viewer is that much stronger.
As invigorating as Layton's style is, he is careful to tie it to the people and the story they're presenting. Memory is unreliable, and as such, Layton's dramatization is only as accurate in showing what actually happened as the subject is in describing it. His decision to drop lines in people's mouths not only serves as a cool directorial flourish, but a reminder to the viewer that what is being shown is simply a recreation. These thriller-like segments stand in stark contrast to a small selection of family home video footage, some of which was recorded by Nicholas before his disappearance, and a crucial clip shot by the family upon his return. Fuzzy and broken up by overwhelming tracking lines, the segment has the atmosphere of a crime scene photo.
Layton's interview process is fair, allowing a few crucial moments of diverging recollections to remain ambiguous, although there are a few instances where the editing (by Andrew Hulme) becomes more noticeably manipulative (particularly whenever short sentences by multiple participants are edited into a montage), and the score somewhat melodramatic. As the movie moves into its final third, the introduction of a private investigator named Charlie Parker also has a tendency to blur the line between the interview footage and the re-enactments, which seems at odds with the rest of Layton's work. Still, the skill with which Layton reveals the final unnerving twist in the story is impressive; almost like a magic trick, he offers up information that casts several moments from earlier in the film in a whole new light.
Although several possibilities are raised by the time the credits roll, Layton resists offering concrete answers about how the events following Nicholas Barclay's disappearance were able to occur, but he unquestionably proves his skill at telling a story, both through the people involved and his own stylistic touches. Taken as a whole, The Imposter is dazzling and haunting in equal measure, sure to have viewers transfixed from beginning to end, and scrambling for their laptops and computers to find out more about this decidedly unique mystery the moment it ends.
The Imposter arrives on home video with mediocre art that feels generic and commonplace for true-crime documentaries. There's nothing about the blue, black, and white color scheme that will make this title stand out amongst other, similar DVDs, and it's a shame, because the theatrical poster (used as art on the back cover) is superior. The Imposter has a certain stylish way of treating text and captions within the film, and I think following that as a lead for the package design would've been better. The disc comes in a plastic-conserving eco-case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
This 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is pretty strong. Some studios, especially smaller ones, would be motivated to try and sharpen the film's naturally soft photography, but Indomina wisely allows the image to look even softer on DVD, which decreases the chance of artifacting and allows the film to retain a more natural appearance. Some banding is visible during darker scenes and the occasional fade-out transition, but it's minimal. Contrast has that modern, gray-as-white look but whites are generally kept under control and aren't allowed to bloom.
Audio is a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, which is most impressive when it comes to the re-creations, which are designed to mimic a narrative feature. Nikitin's music fills the soundscape around the viewer, while the interview comments from the participants are placed front and center, increasing their impact on the viewer. This also emphasizes the moments when Layton decides to alter the sound of their dialogue, by putting a "phone line" effect on it. It's an engrossing, enveloping track that really brings the viewer further into the film. A noticeably flatter Dolby Digital 2.0 track is also included, and although there are no subtitles, the disc offers closed captioning for TVs with that function.
Only one extra is included, but it's a pretty good one: "The Making of The Imposter" (41:30) is a pretty extensive behind-the-scenes piece on the making of the movie. Although the tone can often be far more melodramatic and definitive than the ambiguity of the movie, and there's an over-reliance on clips from the film (which are used in a way that feels a little promotional), the piece still nicely outlines Layton's discovery of the story and his interest and decisions in how to tell it, the monumental research by co-producer Poppy Dixon that allowed the film to be made at all, the struggle of assembling a number of conflicting stories into a single movie, and the making of the dramatization sequences (the interview with Adam O'Brien is particularly fascinating). A deleted scene with Charlie Parker can also be seen in the documentary, which is a small additional bonus.
Trailers for Ice-T's Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (dubstep, eh?), Outcast, The Pack, Devil's Playground, and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate 3D play before the main menu. An original theatrical trailer for The Imposter is also included, as well as a QR code, printed on the disc itself, that will allow the viewer to "unlock actual government case files."
The Imposter is an incredible documentary, and one of the best films of 2012. It arrives on DVD with a strong presentation and an excellent supplementary feature. Highly recommended.
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