In an age of increasingly exploitative and gruesome true crime, The Thief Collector stands as a kind of antidote. Rather than detailing murder victims’ trauma for the masses, this crime documentary turns toward an art heist. Willem de Kooning was one of the most exciting American artists of the 20th Century, working among peers such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. In 1985, his painting, “Woman-Ochre,” was stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art; it was simply cut from its frame and taken away. Despite an investigation by the FBI, the painting couldn’t be found as it wasn’t sold or displayed anywhere else.
After 35 years, “Woman-Ochre” was finally discovered at the estate sale of Rita and Jerry Alter, ostensibly (a frequently used word in the documentary) an unassuming couple in New Mexico. Director Allison Otto pieces together how and why this strange series of events came to be with the help of interviewees including an FBI team member, the people who discovered the painting, relatives of the Alters, and more. The narrative is given some color by hammed-up reenactments starring Glenn Howerton of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia fame and Sarah Minnich as Jerry and Rita.
Evidently, The Thief Collector has a great tale on its hands, and it backs this up with some creative storytelling choices. However, when the filmmakers go beyond fact-based discussion and into speculative territory, the documentary loses its way and its credibility.
A Set of Compelling Components
The Thief Collector works best when it’s recounting things we can be certain are true. Its description of how the art heist played out, and the subsequent discovery, is fascinating, and it’s a story unlike what we typically see. The interviewees are all excellent and confident speakers, so they are easy to trust and follow.
What’s key here is that their enthusiasm is conveyed well to the point that it carries through to the viewer. Even if a member of the audience isn’t well versed in art, or Willem de Kooning specifically, it’s still made clear how important this multi-million dollar painting is. Sometimes, documentaries are only interesting to those who are already invested in the subject, but there is enough combined passion and explanation that anyone can follow and care about this story.
Aside from the heist itself, one of the most gripping parts of the documentary is when we get to learn about Rita and Jerry themselves. Since the two had already passed away, their portrait is composed of their own photos and descriptions from people who knew them, such as family members and former students. While their lifestyle was largely simple (they were both teachers), what stands out is the amount of travel they did.
We are told that they wouldn’t take the usual week-long trips to the beach; they would stay in remote places for a month at a time, seeking out thrilling and even dangerous activities wherever they could. Their home photos and footage are fascinating to see and reminiscent of the recent Fire of Love, a similarly romantic documentary in this way. Rita and Jerry’s outward-facing personas were dedicated to each other, adventurous, and charismatic — it’s impossible not to be enthralled.
One of the most unique elements of The Thief Collector is its reenactments. Of course, these are common in documentaries in order to provide visual reference points for key events and to break up the interview format. But these can often feel poorly made and distract from an otherwise serious documentary. Here, the filmmakers lean into the contrived nature of these reenactments and aim for comedy instead of realism. Complete with obvious green screen use and a variety of fake mustaches, these reenactments stand out from the crowd. Choices like this show a clarity of vision and decisiveness from the filmmakers that is commendable.
Lack of Evidence Raises Concerns
Descriptions of the crime itself and Rita and Jerry as people take us about halfway through the 96-minute runtime, and this is where the documentary starts to go off the rails. With no more fact-based information about the couple to discuss, the narrative delves into speculation. It asks why a couple that seems so normal would do something so terrible and wonders what other crimes they must have committed. But with a shaky foundation and a lack of evidence to defend their extrapolations, it’s hard to go along with these moments of supposed revelation.
The narrative that we are given invites us to be shocked that school teachers who were beloved by their family and former students could do something like this, but this doesn’t align with the actual portrait that is painted of Rita and Jerry. Their house is filled with art, so that is evidently something of interest to them; they were described by their travel agent as “adrenaline junkies,” and the crime itself was simple: they walked in, distracted the guard, and took the painting. When you lay out the facts like this, it’s incredibly easy to believe that this was something they could do. While art theft, of course, isn’t a victimless crime, no one was physically harmed. It was a selfish act rather than a malicious one, and they didn’t have to resort to violence to achieve it.
So, when the documentary asks us to go along with its speculation, it’s difficult to join in when the facts we had just been shown contradict the following guesswork. Since the topic of an art heist is somewhat tame in comparison with the majority of true crime documentaries, it seems as though they are going for shock factor in order to compete, but the story just isn’t there. Documentaries such as Three Identical Strangers have gone down the stranger-than-fiction route successfully because they have truly shocking events to portray. When this works, the documentary can even feel more like a narrative feature. But The Thief Collector’s story is more interesting than mind-blowing, and it would have been more successful if it had simply leaned into its strengths: a good story and an interesting central pair.
While the interviews chosen for the movie are excellently done, there is a gap where it would’ve been helpful to have a more authoritative voice on Rita and Jerry’s real selves. If there had been someone interviewed who really knew them, rather than relatives who rarely saw them and casual friends, there would have been less of a need for conjecture. Rita and Jerry’s children, a son and a daughter, are mentioned briefly in the documentary. We are told that there were very few pictures of the children in their home in comparison to pictures of themselves and that their son has “issues” and is unable to work. Hearing more about their relationship with their children, or even hearing from the children themselves, could have filled this gap.
Unbalanced Tone Topples Second Half
This attempt at forcing a sense of darkness on the narrative of the documentary is what makes the aforementioned campy reenactments sit at odds with the latter half of the movie. These scenes are light and fun and very deliberately positioning themselves to not be taken too seriously. So when we are invited to believe that Rita and Jerry are more sinister than they first appeared, we are still being shown these over-the-top depictions of their behavior and this makes it even harder to follow the trajectory of the documentary. There is a fatal mismatch of tone here.
In the end, the filmmakers approached this from the wrong angle, misunderstanding the material that they had. It’s clear from the direction of this story and the way that it has been promoted that they were aiming for audiences to be shocked and amazed by their findings, but the reality is that they didn’t truly find much.
This strategy comes at the cost of what was under their noses: an intriguing couple full of character who, in all likelihood, succeeded in stealing a multi-million dollar painting. This alone was enough for a great, entertaining documentary. But unfortunately, at best, what they ended up with is an interesting exploration of events both real and theorized. At worst, it’s unfair — bordering on dangerous — speculation about individuals who aren’t around to defend themselves.
From FilmRise, The Thief Collector will be released on demand on May 19th.
This story originally appeared on Movieweb