Movies

Easy Money and The Imposter

A Swedish crime thriller and a dark documentary about a human chameleon

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Easy Money is a Swedish thriller thick with drug gangs, double crosses, and desperate men grappling for a way out through the bullet storms that beset them all around. Classic crime stuff, but in this case distinguished by the emotional connections among the characters and a flickering light of moral consciousness. The movie is a little long, and a little confusing at first (there's quite a bit of subtitled Serbian and Spanish dialogue in addition to Swedish); but it's tough and tightly wound, and for the most part gripping.

On its Scandinavian release two years ago, the picture made a star out of Swedish-American actor Joel Kinnaman, and now we see why. (Kinnaman has since featured in the AMC TV series The Killing, and he's the lead in next year's Robocop remake.) He plays JW, a provincial student at the Stockholm School of Economics. JW longs to become a part of the upscale yuppie culture of the capital city, and he poses as a young man with money. In reality, though, he lives in cramped student housing and drives a taxi at night.

JW's boss at the taxi company, Abdulkarim (Mahmut Suvakci), is an aspiring cocaine mogul on the side, and he lures JW into the business as a low-level street dealer. JW sees this as a way to make the titular easy money. Naturally, he's very wrong.

A man of small-town moral rectitude (for a while), JW is alarmed when he sees a Chilean ex-con named Jorge (memorably charismatic Matias Padin Varela) being beaten by two thugs; he rescues this battered character and takes him home to his student digs to recuperate. Jorge is bent on revenge against the mobsters who put him in jail, chiefly Serbian drug-gang kingpin Radovan (Dejan Cukic). Also irritated by Radovan is one of his vicious enforcers, Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic—an actual one-time gangster, and most convincing). Mrado wants to get out from under Radovan's unpleasant control and return to his hometown of Belgrade; but he's just been saddled with custody of an eight-year-old daughter he had with a woman who's now a drug addict, and the little girl's need for attention is interfering with his heavy schedule of beatings and killings and random depredations.

Looking to expand out of the taxi business, Abdulkarim enlists JW's financial smarts as a money launderer, with promises of a big payday from an upcoming drug deal. JW is very good at this. By now, he has met a wealthy girl named Sophie (classically blond Lisa Henni) at a weekend yuppie gathering at a vast estate. She falls in love with him (awfully quickly, I thought), but JW—paralyzed by warring feelings of shame and avarice, is standoffish. Things get even more complicated, and, as the rival gangs open fire, much worse.

Kinnaman, with his quiet intensity and sleek good looks, is a counterweight for the movie's free-floating violence, and he keeps it from spinning off into simple crime-flick furor. He's assisted in this by the subtly magnetic Varela, whose Jorge is a dangerous man with a vestige of tender feelings left over from another, gentler life. Together, these two actors lift the story into emotional areas beyond the usual concerns of genre. Director Daniel Espinosa (who has since overseen the Denzel Washington thriller Safe House), has a skilled facility for action and a gratifying awareness of its limits—of the need for a moral dimension amid the requisite frenzy. Easy Money is about to be remade in English, with Zack Efron taking over Kinnamon's role. If it need be said, you might want to see this one first.       

The Imposter

The story of Frédéric Bourdin, the human chameleon, has been told before, both here and abroad. In 1997, Bourdin, a 23-year-old French conman, appeared in Spain claiming to be a missing 16-year-old Texas boy, Nicholas Barclay, who had disappeared in San Antonio three years earlier. Although he bore no resemblance to Barclay (and had a pronounced French accent), upon being brought to the U.S. he was happily welcomed into the dysfunctional Barclay family as its vanished son, returned at last.

This strange tale—which grows even stranger on close examination—was recounted at length in a 2008 New Yorker article by David Grann. Now, in The Imposter, documentary filmmaker Bart Layton has put faces to it: We see the dark, brown-eyed, disarmingly soft-spoken Bourdin, and, in childhood video footage, the blond, blue-eyed (and still-missing) Nicholas Barclay. We also meet the monumentally gullible Barclay clan, along with ancillary consular officials, FBI agents, and private investigators.

The movie owes much to the documentary techniques of Errol Morris, particularly his 1988 The Thin Blue Line. Layton's film is likewise a procession of face-on interviews intermingled with mute "recreations" at various narrative points. The director pushes this latter strategy a bit too far, I think: at several points we see Bourdin speaking, and then, in mid-sentence, we cut to the actor playing him in one of the imagined scenes lip-synching the rest of his words. This is distracting, but not ruinous—the picture still exerts a dark fascination.

Bourdin was an unwanted child—the son of a teenage French mother and an unknown Algerian immigrant—who was dumped into his first youth shelter at the age of 12. He became adept at escaping these facilities, one after another, and traveled all around Europe fabricating false identities as an abused or abandoned kid, searching, he said, for a place he could call home. "As long as I can remember," he says in the film, "I wanted to be someone else." He worked these impersonations in more than a dozen countries, picking up several languages along the way and accumulating a sizable Interpol file as well.

It was the threat of being turned over to Interpol by a suspicious judge while living in a shelter in Linares, Spain, that prompted his most brazen con. Asking to use the phone in a shelter office, Bourdin called a national missing-children center in the U.S. Posing as a shelter official, he said a frightened American boy had turned up who wouldn't disclose his name. Providing details of his own appearance, he asked the center if there were any missing children matching that description. There was, sort of—well, maybe: Nicholas Barclay.

Here, Layton introduces us to Nicholas' family members, most importantly his mother, Beverly, a divorced drug addict employed at a local Dunkin' Donuts, and his older sister, Carey. (There was also a shadowy older brother, Jason, who died of a cocaine overdose—possibly a suicide—after Bourdin's arrival.) It was Carey who flew to Spain to bring back her "brother." Thanks to a video cam on the scene, we see them arriving in San Antonio, Bourdin looking bizarre with his face obscured by a hoodie and sunglasses, and barely speaking. He soon claims to have been abducted by a military sex-slave organization that raped him repeatedly and subjected him to "experiments," one of which changed the color of his eyes.

Beverly and Carey accepted Bourdin warmly and without reservation—this, they insisted, was their missing Nicholas. A local FBI agent named Nancy Fisher interviewed the boy and wasn't so sure. A child psychiatrist decided there was no way this kid with the heavy accent could have been raised in an American household. And private investigator Charlie Parker—hired to arrange an interview with "Nicholas" for the tabloid TV show Hard Copy—stuck around to pursue his own strong doubts about this strange person's identity. (Parker felt "Nicholas" might be a foreign spy.)

But Beverly and Carey stuck stubbornly to their fantasy, if that's what it was. As always before, though, Bourdin's imposture slowly began to unravel. But not before he'd made a disturbing discovery—in the film he says he learned what really happened to the long-gone Nicholas Barclay. Layton pursues this assertion, but while the details are provocative, they lead to no solid conclusion. In the end, we're left with the conundrum of why a family would accept a complete stranger as one of its members. Is there a sinister explanation, or a more human one related to grief and longing? At the end, Carey simply says, "How could I be so fucking stupid?" 

Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, is now available. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.