One night in 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay vanished without a trace from his working-class neighborhood in San Antonio, Texas. Three years later, the grieving family learns that he has been found -- in Spain. Nicholas seemed greatly changed: the blond, blue-eyed child returned with a swarthy complexion, brown eyes, and a mysterious French accent. Though Nicholas spun stories of rape and torture at the hands of shadowy military figures to explain his metamorphosis, they proved less and less plausible. He was soon revealed to be a 23-year-old European grifter named Frederic Bourdin.
When the story broke in 1997, it was so sensationally weird that it quickly became fodder for the tabloids, not to mention the subject of a lengthy New Yorker article and even the basis of a movie starring Nick Stahl.
Director Bart Layton managed to get both Bourdin and the Barclay family to participate in his masterfully controlled documentary, "The Imposter." Layton comes from the Errol Morris school of documentary filmmaking. Not only does he unabashedly include re-enactments of key events, but -- with a chilly detachment -- he also lets his interviewees relate their very differing accounts. It makes for a wild ride that plumbs some very strange corners of the human psyche.
"I wanted to be someone else, someone who was acceptable."
That's about as close as Bourdin comes to an explanation for his actions. Now a man in his mid-30s, he is an engaging, funny interviewee, though there's something unnervingly dead in his eyes. As he tells it, he ended up in Texas after one lie -- claiming to be an abused teen so he could stay in a Spanish children's shelter, already an odd goal -- piled atop another and then another. The motivations of Nicholas's family in accepting a person into their home who clearly was not Nicholas are, if anything, even more mysterious. Was it a massive case of denial, or was there something sinister going on? Bourdin makes such an impassioned case for the latter that by the time the credits roll, you're not sure if you've seen glimpses of a conspiracy or if you've been duped by a pathological liar.
Bourdin's rationale would work just as a well with JW (Joel Kinnaman from the AMC series "The Killing"), the main character of the Swedish crime drama "Easy Money."
When we first see J.W., he's partying with the uber-preppy spawn of Sweden's 1%. JW, however, is far from rich, something that he hides from his moneyed friends. He goes so far as to buy haute couture knock-off shirts and then replace the buttons with those from the real thing. J.W. squeezes in classes at the Stockholm School of Economics between shifts as a cabbie and basically does everything he can to maintain his expensive facade. So when he gets a call to follow and then rescue escaped convict Jorge (Mattias Padin Varela) from the clutches of Serbian hit man Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic) in exchange for a pile of kronor, he jumps at the chance.
J.W. soon finds himself embroiled in a scheme with Arab and Albanian gangsters to ship massive amounts of cocaine up from Germany. With visions of staggering wealth dancing before him, JW uses his business-school savvy and his upper-crust connections to launder the money by buying an ailing bank. Money is money, as J.W. points out to the bank president, whether the bearers of that wealth are MBAs in designer sports jackets or mobsters in velour tracksuits. The bank president readily goes along with the deal. That delicious blurring of the business world and the underworld is layered with resonance and irony -- especially this week, when it was revealed that Barclays Bank has been screwing with interest rates for its own ill-gotten gains -- but, sadly, the movie doesn't develop it further. Instead, "Money" plays it safe, staying close to the familiar plot points of the genre. J.W., or "The Brains," as he's dubbed by his gangland comrades, soon finds himself in over his well-coiffed head, realizing too late that his would-be business partners are venal, violent, and dangerously untrustworthy.
When the movie was released in Sweden under the far more memorable title "Snabba Cash," it was a massive hit, launching a bidding war for the remake rights in Hollywood, which is no doubt hoping for a little Swedish "Dragon Tattoo" magic.
Also expanding this weekend is the deeply creepy horror movie "The Pact," which proves that family can been infinitely more disturbing than a haunted house.
See the trailer for 'The Imposter' and 'Easy Money':