A couple of weeks ago, as I sat on my couch hungover as usual, I was entranced by the spectacle of synchronised diving. When successfully performed, if you unfocus your eyes a little bit, it looks like one woman diving but in slightly deranged 3D (yes this is how I spend my weeknights. In short: suffering). I flicked over to Channel 4 to be treated to America's Animal Hoarder: Terror at the Zoo. A documentary about a small town in (you guessed it) America, where a lunatic had been keeping 50 carnivorous beasts - lions, tigers and bears oh my! - in shitty cages and hoarding hundreds of automatic weapons. It’s hard to imagine this happening in Laois isn’t it? (Or is it actually?) The man’s wife left him, he got depressed, shot himself in the face and let loose all his furry killing machines on the town as revenge. Well... possibly? We’ll never really know why. Anyway, long story short, the police had little option and so went to town on the animals and in one day killed the equivalent of 1% of all the tigers living in India. They were not popular of course, but the documentary went a long way towards explaining and humanising the incident. Though it wasn’t the best documentary I’ve ever seen it was good.
It’s no surprise that Channel 4’s name comes up twice at the start of The Imposter which is what this article is about. And yes, I’m getting there, just wait. By the way, for the purposes of this next bit I’m posting this link to 4docs.com. Click it if you want to watch a short documentary which pretty well sums up the ethos that I’m so admiring of. It also leads nicely into the next meandering section of this review, which still barely mentions the film I’m supposed to be reviewing but before you start sending hate mail to the editor of thumped, (and good luck with that by the way) take a second to shut the fuck up you prick and bear with me. I’m getting there.
When the Cohen brothers began Fargo with the words “based on a true story” knowing full well that the only thing that was true about it was that there is a town in the American north west called Fargo, they (as is the way with these bespectacled geniuses) were doing a very clever piece of audience manipulation. When dealing with true stories, you can’t really question it that much. Hence a lot of the audience's disbelief is immediately suspended by the title card declaring that the story is true. I mean it’s real, it happened, it’s fact. In Fargo the Cohens use the blatant lie of “it’s all true” to great effect in that the tone of the film, it’s mix of homely middle America and it’s bleak and pitch dark underbelly could, in the hands of lesser film makers, (and let’s be honest - the Cohens don’t have to lie to make a great film I just admire the fact that they did) seem forced. Its almost comic juxtaposition of the family drama and the absolute dirt bag shenanigans of Buscemi et al and the surreal, bleak sometimes down right harrowing feeling this creates could misfire. By the time the wood-chipper arrives you could be thinking “Aw c’mon that’s too far lads”. It could seem too outlandish, but the true story claim goes some way to perhaps subconsciously assure the audience, it’s all real.
Again, this is the Cohens I’m talking about they could claim that the film was made entirely in real time by a crew of pirates and they’d probably still get the film right, and Fargo is a masterpiece and would be even without that claim of veracity, but I just love the fact it’s in there. The reason that true stories fire our interest so much is that the mere fact that it’s been made into a film implies that the subject matter is utterly extraordinary. As Alfred Hitchcock said “film is life without the boring bits”. However, what the Cohens were doing by claiming that Fargo was based on the truth, allowed them complete license to go out and make something surreal and still have it grounded in absolute reality. In a way, the opposite to the challenge that faces documentary filmmakers, for these brave souls will be faced with the truth and in most cases an extraordinary truth. But how do you make that truth interesting within the context of a feature film? One way, i.e the opposite of Fargo which takes fiction and pretends it’s true (if only slightly) if you get me, is to treat the truth within the context of recognisable genres of fiction. Man On Wire was, in many ways, a documentary which plays out as a heist film. One Day In September is a thriller in disguise. And now here comes The Imposter, probably the worlds first documentary film noir.
The Imposter is about a 13 year old Texan boy who disappeared in 1994. Three years later a guy shows up in Spain claiming to be him and is ‘re-united’ with his family. Extraordinary? Yes, very much so.
That all happens before the credits and to give away anything about what happens next would be absolute sacrilege. There’s a lot I want to say about The Imposter. If you see it you will guffaw, laugh out loud, you’ll be on the edge of your seat throughout and you will not be able to predict anything that happens in it. See it with someone who talks as much as you do (not throughout the film of course - that would be grounds for public stoning) and then get a coffee in either the IFI or the equally cosy Lighthouse and talk about it at length. It’s a film in which much is explored and little is explained so there is much to discuss afterwards. Why not get a muffin or some pie? Ask that talkative lady from the office to accompany you to it - no it’s not a date, I mean unless you want it to be a date? I mean I’ll pay for the tickets and all. You know the one I mean - the chatty intelligent one with the big smile who always has a book tucked under her arm. Sure, it’s probably just the jacket off 2666 with 50 Shades Of Grey inside but still that’s no bad thing either (weh heh heh), maybe even share a bottle of wine. Like I said, there is much to discuss here, it’s a feast for the chat and gorge that Tuesdays were made for. In short, this is one of the best - if not the best - films of the year so far and you should see it now.
In long - the reason that the film works so well is not just that the story is so bizarre but how Bart Layton has chosen to make the film. He is very much making a mystery-suspense thriller here. The tone is dark, the pace is very fast and the “characters” and their motivations remain shrouded in mystery throughout. Very much following the narrative of noir, the film follows the main protagonists decent into the murk of a very American tale of pulp. Important facts of the case are presented as plot twists here and the result is a real build up of tension as the film skirts and sinews along. Of course no film is perfect and in presenting the protagonists stories and not trying particularly hard to moralise, it could be argued that several people here are given fairly rough treatment while the more charismatic main figure holds the screen so well and is given so much screen time that it is hard not to invest in him more than the others. Again, a discussion of this at length would simply lead to major spoilers. When trying to deal with any mystery the ethical waters become very cloudy very quickly, and Layton doesn’t generally seem at all interested in keeping anyones hands clean.
The Imposter is showing now at The IFI, The Lighthouse & Cineworld cinemas.