Thanks to the efforts of directors like Morgan Spurlock and Davis Guggenheim ("Waiting for Superman"), documentaries have gained more popularity over the years. Documentaries have moved away from their legacy of dull tedium and become one of the most exciting genres of film, constantly showing the ability to take topics that most audiences would not usually find interesting and turning them into cinematic gold.
That's not always the case, though. Sometimes, a story is so fascinating that all a documentarian has to do is roll film. Case in point: Bart Layton's "The Imposter," a new doc at the Milwaukee Film Festival that plays like a thriller.
In 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappears walking back to his San Antonio home. Three years later, the police in Spain call his family to let say that they miraculously found their son. However, when he returns home, the local police begin to question Nicholas, who arrives in town with a strong French accent and the wrong-colored eyes.
It turns out they were right to be suspicious, as "Nicholas Barclay" turns out to be a 23-year-old Frenchman named Frederic Bourdin, who somehow convinced multiple police departments and even the missing child's family that he was their long-lost son.
Obviously, considering the film's title (and the fact that the story made national news), Bourdin's trickery isn't exactly a twist. Instead, Layton goes into the minds of his subjects, including the shifty French fake himself, who through an insightful interview describes his entire mindset and strategy during the debacle in incredible detail.
Much of "The Imposter"'s fascinating story is told with a combination of interviews and reenactments. In most cases, reenactments are to be feared, normally combining fake-looking drama with hammy acting to take the audience completely out of the story. That's not the case with "The Imposter." Instead of being an afterthought, the slick, shadowy reenactments are feature film quality, making it hard to believe that it's a documentary and not a stylish, heart-pumping Hollywood-produced mystery.
In most cases, it's better than most of Hollywood's latest batch of mystery tales. Though the audience knows Bourdin has to get caught eventually, it's remarkably intense to watch the imposter's crafty web of lies come together and then slowly fall apart. No thanks to the family, though, who seem shockingly eager to accept their new son despite the glaring differences.
Midway through "The Imposter," in fact, Layton takes Bourdin off the hot seat and puts the family there. How could they have not seen this wasn't Nicholas? Did their desire to get their son back make them blind, or is it something more sinister? It's a creepy turn of events that adds even more intrigue to an already riveting real-life story.
It's often said that real life can be more dramatic than anything a screenwriter could come up with, and "The Imposter" proves it. With its band of complex characters, sleek storytelling and a compelling mystery that only gets more bizarre as it goes along, Bart Layton's film is the best thriller Hollywood wishes it could've come up with.
"The Imposter" has three more showings at the Milwaukee Film Festival: Sept. 29 at 4:30, Oct. 2 at 9:45 and Oct. 5 at 2:15.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Matt Mueller
Published Oct. 21, 2014
In early 2012, music fans found themselves entranced by two hypnotically romantic pop songs cryptically released onto YouTube. The songs were gorgeous, a dreamy high voice with just a touch of smokiness crooning intimate lyrics over seductively simple electronic arrangements. Everyone just wanted to know who was responsible. It was an impressive little indie music mystery ... especially since it was essentially an accident.
Published Oct. 20, 2014
In 2012, comedian Tig Notaro went through a series of intense, significant personal crises that would be overwhelming in a four-year stretch, much less in merely four months. In a matter of a few months, Notaro faced a break-up, a sudden death in the family and two potentially fatal ailments. And in the middle of all of that, she had a stand-up gig at Largo in Los Angeles. The rest, as the cliché says, is history.
Published Oct. 16, 2014
A little over a decade ago, Milwaukee musician and Testa Rosa lead vocalist Betty Blexrud-Strigens got a chance to see the legendary Patti Smith in Madison. Even though the show came quite some time after Smith's punk glory years, Blexrud-Strigens still remembers the rock legend providing a charge. Now, it's up to Blexrud-Strigens and a roster of Milwaukee artists and musicians to bring that essence back to the stage with "Smith Uncovered."
Published Oct. 15, 2014
After three years, The Rural Alberta Advantage is taking a new album on the road, including a return stop at Turner Hall Ballroom on Wednesday, Oct. 15 at 8 p.m. Before then, however, OnMilwaukee.com chatted with the band's drummer Paul Banwatt about the process behind "Mended with Gold," looking back at the band's past and spending some time in a creepy Canadian cabin. And, of course, hockey.
Published Oct. 14, 2014
Judged as awards bait, "Kill the Messenger" won't likely snag the golden glory it's looking for. Once you remove the arbitrary frame of awards season, "Kill the Messenger" is a solid, satisfyingly unpredictable and well performed journalism drama that - following the lead of "Shattered Glass" and, of course, "All the President's Men" - often plays like a tense thriller.
Published Oct. 13, 2014
At the end of the month, the Milwaukee Public Museum will celebrate the fall - as well as its current "Alien Worlds and Androids" exhibit - with a Sci-Fi Film Fest. Every Thursday and Saturday (save for Thanksgiving) from Oct. 23 through Nov. 29, the museum will screen a sci-fi flick in the Dome Theater.
Published Oct. 12, 2014
How does one stretch a barely 30-page short story of accumulated gripes and grumbles into a feature length film? In the case of "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day," the answer is simple: poorly. By the time its 82-minute running time comes to a grateful close - and all of the cliché, contrived and crude chaos with it - Alexander's bad day has morphed into the audience's bad day.
Published Oct. 10, 2014
Few bands have come out of the gates as strongly as Milwaukee's own Field Report. So it's safe to say the bar was set high for Field Report's eventual sophomore attempt, one nicely cleared by "Marigolden," released Tuesday, Oct. 7.
Published Oct. 7, 2014
Just when it seemed like the 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival was just beginning. As it turns out, 14 days goes extremely fast, as the sixth annual cinema extravaganza comes to a close Thursday night. But let's not quite start throwing dirt on the festival's casket quite yet. There still are three days of movies, filled with plenty of great options to offer. Here are some of the best of the rest of the 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival.
Published Oct. 6, 2014
If the opening moment of "Wetlands" desperately pleads against its existence, the ensuing 109 minutes of youthfully exuberant gross-out comedy - currently showing at the Milwaukee Film Festival with a final showing Monday night at the Times Cinema at 10 p.m. - couldn't be a more enthusiastic endorsement for it.