Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Imposter

Considered a dead-cert win at the Academy Awards next year, Bart Layton's documentary The Imposter has rapidly generated a great deal of notoriety and acclaim. The quintessential 'stranger than fiction' tale, it's sensational blend of archive footage, delicate reconstructions and heartrending talking head interviews illustrate that, not only is Layton a masterful, investigative reporter, but moreover a profoundly impressive storyteller.
Back in 1994, the blue-collar Barclay family from San Antonio, Texas, was left distraught after the disappearance of their 13-year-old son, Nicholas. Like any teenage boy, Nicholas was a cocksure kid, filled with energy, love for his family, and certainly wouldn't run away from home for no good reason. Weeks turned into months, and eventually the case was abandoned by the police and press. Three years later, the local Texas police department receives an international call from Spain. On the receiving end is a character claiming to be Nicholas. Putting in a bogus story about how he escaped the clutches of a drug fuelled, pedophilic organization, the police think his story check out, and soon enough Nicholas' sister Carey jets over to Europe to meet her long lost brother. In front of police officials, she takes a good look and identifies him as the legitimate lost brother. Three years ago, Nicholas was a blue-eyed, spunky American teenager, now he's transformed into a dark haired, brown-eyed man with stubble and an irreplaceable French accent.
The Imposter, like its central subject, is not the documentary you expect it to be. With many twists, contortions and moral judgments, you’re pretty much open-mouth and on the edge of your seat throughout the film's entirety. That's partly down to Layton's craft, particularly the Errol Morris-like interviewing technique – which sees people gaze directly into the lens of the camera and, vicariously, straight at us. But, even more astounding, is the capricious performer that names the film. Frédéric Bourdin, a then 23-year-old man of French-Algerian descent, is actively impersonating Nicholas the whole time, convincing not only the state officials, but the abandoned boy's own mother. With a shrouded history as a homeless orphan thrown into the life of deception and petty crime, he longed to fit in and have a family of his own. When that opportunity didn't surface, he decided to steal Nicholas's own.
"How could he get away with it?" I hear you cry. That's something I'll leave for you to answer when you see this documentary. Suffice to say, Bourdin is an intimidating, convincing, intelligent and charismatic figure. To the point where we sit back and reflect whether we ourselves could have been swung by his quick wit throughout the length of the interview. Even if Bourdin is the great pretender, a new revelation in the film's final act suggests that the Barclay family in turn, is perhaps keeping up appearances of their own too.
It may not be my favorite documentary of the year, but The Imposter is the best psychological thriller I've seen in recent memory. It transcends the documentary stratum. A dauntingly universal account of a missing child and false identity, its stupefying moments will leave you silenced whilst the movie plays out. But, as soon as the credits roll, you'll be talking about this exceptional movie for years to come.

A Hijacking

For his second directorial feature, Tobias Lindholm (co-writer of The Hunt) delivers the kind of indifferent, matter-of-fact realism not experienced since the early days of Dogme 95. And because it cuts through all the fluff and artifice that has invaded commercial films without compromising momentum as a situationist thriller, one must concede that A Hijacking has upped the ante on Danish rebellion against the Hollywood system.
The refusal to include actual scenes of the hijacking in a film specifically titled "A Hijacking" is no accident.
A cargo ship MV Rozen is hijacked by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. Among the eight men crew taken hostage is Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk), the ship's cook. A translator for the pirates issues demand for $15 million in exchange for release. But back in Copenhagen, CEO of the shipping company Peter (Søren Malling) learns that gaining the upper hand demands patience. And so negotiations play out in silence like a sociopathic Fischer-Spassky game: cold, calculated, unyielding.
I can't think of any movie in which I have wanted so much to resist and cease watching, yet fail to do so because it has a quality so raw, unsympathetic and intuitive. In keeping with Lindholm's debut feature, an unforgiving prison drama (“R”); A Hijacking is filmed on location, in chronological sequence and on board a sea freighter that was hijacked in the Indian ocean. Casting also features a real life hostage negotiator as the central figure and naturally, Somali pirates.
Arguably, mechanical reproduction of genuine conditions doesn't guarantee a convincing film but in this case, it does — A Hijacking looks so suitably stained with normality that one instantly recognizes the absence of gimmicky aesthetics. Unmanipulated, you resonate with the film's fabric of reality while searching for something more, and in the process, gain access into psychological domains that underpin both Peter and Mikkel.
It's not for nothing that Lindholm went through great lengths to replicate an uncomfortable, pressing scenario because the film offers reflection on an overlooked form of terrorism. Corporations may be showing it to employees as a resource on how to respond during such crises, but A Hijacking’s master stroke — is the revelation of an impasse between the moral versus the practical. There is no payoff at the end of this film, it is one the most sophisticated vérités I have seen, the meta-argument leaves you deliberating, and the film takes off like a thinker on paradox.


Living from the river. Life is hard but the people are hard-working, honest and resourceful. If Mark Twain was writing now, and had not been seduced into doing graphic novels, these are the people he would be writing about. In fact, this film does homage to Mark Twain; Huckleberry Finn was based on a childhood friend of Mark Twain's called Tom Blankenship, the name of a character in this film. This film then, essentially, is a modern up-date of that genre.
The two boys are played superbly by Ty Sheridan and Jacob Lofland. Their characters are fourteen-years old, hardened and matured by their environment. The two actors seem believable and natural in their roles. Chris Pine was originally considered for the role of the mysterious stranger, and with his blue eyes and young looks, he would have looked attractive and charismatic as he encountered the boys. I bet he wishes he had been in this well-scripted film. However Pine's loss is Matthew McConaughey's gain. Robinson Crusoe was never like this. I doubt if Pine could play this as well as McConaughey, who lives this role. Actor? This guy looks like he has done nothing, but, live on the river, all his life. You totally believe he is living on this island. If there was a Best Eating Baked Beans Oscar, he would get it! A totally convincing performance! All performances were great. Not just of McConaughey and the two boys, but of all the supporting actors too. At first you are unsure who is who in the families. They seem a little cold but as the film progresses the characters develop. All are believable. The female roles, there are three, are all strong and well developed. The lovely Reese Witherspoon, star of Legally Blonde, like Sharon Stone in Casino, shows here that she can play a gritty role. Youngest actress, Bonnie Sturdivant, like the boys, got it just right. Older actors too were great; Sam Shepard, who played his role with some depth, and it was good to see Joe Don Baker in a small role.
All actors played their roles convincingly. As said, their lives are hard; they are plain-speaking people, however the occasional bit of laconic home-spun philosophy, will also be said.
This movie is beautifully filmed, lovely rich colours. The river is filmed lovingly, so too the way of life. The film is homage to the life and the river. However while we see beautiful scenes of the river, we see too the grittier scenes of urban decay and dereliction and waste. All filmed brilliantly.
There are many different threads and themes to this film and it is unclear what will be resolved. Friendship, family, life and death, love and violence are all explored. The adult themes are not hidden. The boys have to try figure out the truth and act accordingly. The film is very much seen through their eyes. However we do see a little bit more than the boys see. What is the truth? What to do? The truth is not very clear, clear as mud, perhaps. No real judgment is made about the truth, or the characters, or their decisions. Their lives are too rich and complex for that sort of simplistic verdict.