In 1997, a phone call dramatically altered the lives of the Texan family of Nicholas Barclay, the thirteen year-old boy who inexplicably disappeared in 1994. The San Antonio police shattered their perpetual nightmarish existence with news that he had turned up in a children’s shelter in Andalusia, Spain. Shocked, ecstatic and relieved, Nicholas’s half-sister Carey travelled to Spain to collect him and finally bring him home.
But, as the title of Bart Layton’s new film makes clear, this boy was not what he seemed. For a start, he appeared to be a lot older than what Nicholas (who would have been sixteen) should have looked liked; he had a bigger, bulkier frame and a five o’ clock shadow lingered like a mocking tell-tale sign around his face. There were other discrepancies; the small, blonde, blue-eyed boy who grew up in Texas had acquired a French accent, his hair was dirty blonde and his eyes a stubborn brown. Yet Nicholas’s trademark gap-tooth was there, as were his tattoos. Carey was resolute: it was Nicholas. Her invincible belief also convinced both the Spanish authorities and the FBI.
As is revealed early on in the film, the boy was not Nicholas, but the peripatetic fraudster Frédéric Bourdin. It’s a true story so astonishingly bizarre that it requires no Hollywood A-Listers gracing its cast, no overblown budgets or dramatic effects. Instead, the film is a clever concoction of wordless reconstructions, grainy footage and interviews with the real-life, deeply unreliable protagonists. This is not ‘based on a true story’, but the true story itself, and that is what gives the film real impact.
It is Bourdin – ‘le caméléon’ who dominates the interviews with his uncanny gap-toothed smile and absorbing bravado. Layton must be commended for his fearlessness in exposing Bourdin, giving him free reign to appeal to the audience for clemency. The safer, usually more effective penchant of directors is to obscure the villain as much as possible, allowing the audience’s mind to run wild with shadowy figures and frantic speculation. Some of the most iconic thrillers have adopted this strategy, a lack of concrete knowledge exacerbating and exaggerating the depravity of villains (Seven, The Usual Suspects), with some not revealing any evil physical manifestation at all (Hidden, The Blair Witch Project).
Yet the parasitic Bourdin manages to produce profound disquiet, despite also presenting himself as candid and charming. Leaning into the camera, he could be confiding in his friends his recent misdemeanours, often smiling at his own audacious tale, confessing his terror at being discovered. His persuasiveness is infectious and almost garners our empathy; after all, who hasn’t spun a web of lies, wishing they could undo the undoable? His poor command of the English language also leads to some accidental, brilliantly disturbing one-liners. ‘I washed her brain’ he smirks, as he describes his astonishing hold over Carey. It eerily echoes Hannibal Lector’s notoriously chilling line from The Silence of the Lambs, ‘I ate his liver.’
The audience’s relief as a child psychologist and an FBI agent finally start to suspect and unmask Bourdin does not last long. A twist in the tale manages to eclipse Bourdin’s cruelty and confronts the audience with an even darker conclusion. Yet the film is weakened by the appearance of the laughable buffoon Charlie Parker, the private investigator whose donkey-chasing-a-carrot eagerness dilutes the tension.
Yet this is an utterly gripping film about the power of deception and ostensibly, the vulnerability of trust and love. Its conclusion is perfectly unsettling, offering no satisfying answers to the cacophony of questions it raises. It’s a modern-day Little Red Riding Hood, with Bourdin the wolf, cruelly disguising himself in order to wreak havoc on a poor and broken family. As the credits go up, the grainy footage of the childish Bourdin, imitating Michael Jackson with detailed perfection leaves the audience with an unforgettable image of his precocious talent and a haunting reminder of the other little boy, whose own home-video footage starts the film. Nicholas Barclay still remains missing to this day.
Director – Bart Layton