It seems as if we have just reached the tail of peak True Crime media. Having put phenomena like Serial, The Jinx, and Making a Murderer behind us allows some perspective. Each of these had their day in the sun for different reasons—Serial and Making a Murderer highlighted the deeply rooted flaws in our justice system. The Jinx was a brilliant deep dive into the mind of a sociopath, eventually revealed to be a serial killer. These stories were pulpy mysteries that played in real life and had genuine twists and turns that most fiction couldn’t replicate. Any script doctor would’ve tossed out Bobby Durst’s final line of the series for being too on the nose. In the end they all sky-rocketed to public consciousness because they all asked the same question “Did they do it?” It’s the decisive question that forces us to tune in for the next installment.
Watching The Imposter was a matter of recourse for me. At 12AM on a particularly busy weekday I decided dive in. Part of what lured me to this project was simply its brief running time. The pattern of True Crime stories coming in 10-part installment (at least) had become increasingly exhaustive the more addicting it became and it was such a breath of fresh air just to see a story I could finish in one sitting.
The Impostor tells the story of how a homeless young man, Frederic Bourdin from the streets of France winds up tricking a poor Texas family into believing he is their missing lost son, Nicholas Barclay. As the story goes on Frederic’s story quickly begins to fall apart under law enforcement scrutiny. However, the more Frederic’s story unravels, the more the family’s does as well and the case of Nicholas’ disappearance begins to raise more questions.
It is a wonderfully shot film, especially when it focuses on Bourdin. With his cap always pulled down low and the many shots of him in deep shadows, the film takes great care in making its dramatic re-enactments more than perfunctory. It says something about the story. The fact that it uses Bourdin—so many years later—to star in his own dramatic reenactments only further adds to their strange quality. They are too dark when they have no reason to be and Bourdin sticks out like a thumb trying to impersonate a 15 year old. In the end it all they feel…off and wrong somehow.
The Impostor separates itself from the rest of the pack by re-prioritizing its point of view in the story. One critical flaw in those three True Crime stories is while they seem to have no stone un-turned in their reporting of the actual case (And even that fact may not be accurate), they all seem to short-change the most important aspect of the case-the humanity of the victim and the families they leave behind. As much as Serial may spend an episode fleshing out Hae as a young woman or how Making a Murderer shows small clips of Teresa Halbach’s brother its clear this is not what they are actually interested in. The focus and perspective remains on the accused at the expense of the victims. At times this leaves a bitter taste in my mouth when bingeing these programs. As enthralled as I am with these mysteries what am I ultimately consuming?
By the end of the film, The Impostor illuminates the true character of Frederic Bourdin in utmost certainty. Any hope for sympathy or glimmer of remorse is immediately wiped away by the final scene. What remains is face of a man unrepentant for his actions and almost gleeful for his success. The Impostor plays a cruel joke on its viewer. Making you sympathize with a disaffected teen then punishing you for ever falling for him in the first place; so that in the end you are left with a sickening pit deep in your stomach. The anguish of Nicholas Barclay’s family is put front and center. As the director Bart Layton explains,
“He invites sympathy… he can be very charming. And at other times he can be quite repellent, because he can be remorseless and you’re reminded about what he did. So as a filmmaker, I was asking, how can I find a way of getting the audience to experience a bit of that?
The ‘how’ is the most interesting aspect of this film because what’s starts of as a typical dramatic re-enactment/murder mystery ends up becoming a treatise of how this kind of sensationalism can destroy families. As the final shots of the film flicker through the screen each member of the Barclay family is highlighted—the look of grief and confusion still ravaged across their faces. Before Serial, before The Jinx, Before Making a Murderer, The Impostor somehow managed to be damning critique of its own successors—and to the viewers who will eventually watch the next one.