Friday, July 13, 2012

A queasy-making documentary for all kinds of reasons: Bart Layton's THE IMPOSTER

It seems to TrustMovies that he read an article in The New Yorker several years ago that detailed the exact story told in the new faux-documentary THE IMPOSTER. If not, then it was a tale surprisingly like that of this film. Being one of those very long New Yorker articles, it didn't get finished by TM, who only has time for reading material while he's traveling on the subway or bus. (At all other times he's in screening rooms, watching; at home, writing; or occasionally babysitting the grand-kids.) So as he watched this interesting and bizarre documentary, it began to take on a kind of second life for him. He knew it, sort of -- until the point that he didn't, and then everything became new, rather than slightly second-hand.

The filmmaker here, Bart Layton (shown at left) appears to have chosen the relatively new and increasingly traveled road taken by more and more movie documentarians: combining in some form both documentary and narrative. You can achieve this via the ever-popular "re-enactment," as James Marsh is apt to do; or the strange and lovely fantasy/dreamscape/reality combo used by Alma Har'el in Bombay Beach; or any number of shake-ups that can be grafted onto the form of the modern documentary. Layton, if I am interpreting his approach correctly, has tried to stick entirely to the facts, as known -- or to the best-guess speculation -- then hired actors to play the major roles, mouthing dialog that the real people might have spoken, and then filmed all of this in the style of a documentary. In a sense this is in some ways close to the old- (and new-) fashioned doc-style drama based on fact -- from I Want to Live to Boys Don't Cry. The difference is that Layton has filmed his tale so much in the affectless, documentary style that you could swear you were watching the real people simply behaving as best they can in front of the camera. Nice trick!

In any case, you are almost completely enfolded in this story that houses some awfully creepy characters, all the more so because they seem blithely unaware of their own creepiness. As to the story itself, it's a humdinger (or maybe a bumdinger: a humdinger that's a bummer) -- hugely strange from both the aspect of the titular imposter (a man in his 30s who likes to pretend to be a young teenager) to that of the family so eager to have its missing child back that it will overlook just about any discrepancy in fact or appearance. Are these people crazy, you begin to wonder? Or is something else far worse at work here?

That "something else" provides the film's additionally creepy kicker. This story is so full of the unbelievable (yet it happened, so you do believe) and of people doing their job very poorly (unfortunately you can believe that pretty easily, too) -- whether it be immigration officials, social workers, police or even family, whose special job, one would think, is to love and protect -- that your jaw hangs open wider and wider as the movie proceeds.

Afterward, in the quiet of remembrance, I found myself wondering if the film might have been equally effective as simply a standard, just-the-facts, investigative documentary. All this re-creation and "acting" makes it much more of a hybrid than a real doc. Yet these very things also provides a high degree of drama and suspense. There is no denying how effective is Mr. Layton's telling of this tale, which is certainly among the more interesting near-documentaries of the year.

The Imposter opens today, Friday, July 13, in New York City exclu-sively at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema, where the filmmaker will appear in person tonight at the 7pm and 9:40 screenings. It begins its nationwide, limited release in 15 other cities next month. You can find all currently scheduled playdates here.

No comments: