In Wim Wenders’ 1984 melodrama Paris, Texas, a lost man appears from the desert, with little to identify himself, and embarks on a journey to reintegrate himself back into his all American family. In Bart Clayton’s new docu-thriller, a lost man appears from rural Spain, with little to identify himself, and embarks on a journey to reintegrate himself back into his all American family. The catch, this time, is that they’re not his family. While The Imposter ends up taking a wholly different route, Clayton’s film shares the same themes of loss, identity and the overwhelming pull of the American dream.
The story begins in 1994; Nicholas Barclay, a Texan teen, disappears from his neighbourhood never to be seen again. Cut to three years later and a young man claiming to be Nicholas is found – but in rural Spain. The young man asserts he is Nicholas, and is swiftly reunited with the relieved Barclay family, thousands of miles away from where he was found. All good so far. But suspicions start to grow; didn’t Nicholas have blonde hair? Why does he now have a French accent? He doesn’t look like Nicholas. But the family, desperate to cling onto any shred of hope, take him into their household with open arms.
The film is told through a mix of reconstructions and interviews, including Carey, his sister, Beverley, his mother, and even ‘Nicholas’ himself. The interviews themselves are both horrifying and absurd, as we slowly begin to understand how such an incredible set of circumstances came about. Carey and Beverley are obviously distraught, even numbed, by the set of events, but it is ‘Nicholas’ who steals the show. During the screening, I was convinced I was watching an actors performance. Surely, surely that can’t be the real ‘Nicholas’? He is a remarkably candid, engaging interviewee, and one of the films triumphs is its ability to make us empathise with our subject, even at his lowest points.
The reconstructions are filmed with a measured eye for composition; Nicholas framed against a stormy grey mural, skulking under his protective hoody, or the frequent vista shots of the vast blue Texan skies, reminding us of Nicholas’ culture shock, and how far he has come in order to achieve his goal. If I was to point to one small niggle, it’s that the film as a whole is perhaps too polished. It seeks to be a piece of real cinema, which I think it achieves, but sometimes the rawness of the subject is lost. Dear Zachary, another docu-thriller from a few years ago, had possibly even more of a lasting punch to it, but with a rougher edge.
Is The Imposter a ‘must see’ film? Well, I wouldn’t quite stretch to that accolade. While the story is rather incredible to begin with, it loses its impact part way through the film when you realise the stakes aren’t going to be raised much further. The film makers make an attempt to bring a potentially very juicy plot thread through near the end, but you get the feeling this is a very cheeky and possibly even morally dubious piece of reportage. But the film is generally gripping, the subject fascinating and beautifully shot. Perhaps there could have been a more in depth psychological analysis of Nicholas, but the film fares very well within its fast moving, lean narrative.