The Thief Collector Review: A fascinating story weighed down by speculation

In an era of increasingly exploitative and gruesome true crime, The Thief Collector stands as a kind of antidote. Instead of detailing the trauma of murder victims for the masses, this crime documentary becomes art theft. Willem de Kooning was one of the most exciting American artists of the 20th century, working with colleagues such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. In 1985, his painting, “Woman-Ocher,” was stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art; it was simply cut from the frame of it and taken away. Despite an FBI investigation, the painting could not be found as it was not sold or displayed anywhere else.


After 35 years, “Ocher-Woman” was finally discovered at the sale of the property of Rita and Jerry Alter, apparently (a word frequently used in the documentary) an unassuming couple in New Mexico. Director Allison Otto brings together how and why this bizarre series of events came to pass with the help of interviewees, including a member of the FBI team, the people who discovered the painting, relatives of the Alters, and more. The narrative is given some color with impromptu reenactments starring Glenn Howerton from It’s always sunny in Philly fame and Sarah Minnich as Jerry and Rita.

Evidently, The Thief Collector He’s got a great story on his hands, and he backs it up with some creative storytelling choices. However, when the filmmakers move beyond factual discussion and into speculative territory, the documentary loses its direction and credibility.

A set of convincing components

The Thief Collector it works best when it tells things that we can be sure are true. His description of how the art theft and subsequent discovery unfolded is fascinating, and it’s a different story than what we normally see. All of the interviewees are excellent and confident speakers, so it’s easy to trust and follow them.

What is key here is that your enthusiasm is conveyed well to the point that it reaches the viewer. Even if an audience member isn’t well versed in art, or Willem de Kooning specifically, it becomes clear just how important this multi-million dollar painting is. Documentaries are sometimes only interesting to those already involved in the subject, but there is enough passion and explanation combined for anyone to follow and care about this story.

Aside from the heist itself, one of the most gripping parts of the documentary is when we learn about Rita and Jerry. Since they were both already deceased, their portrait is made up of their own photos and descriptions of 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 took.

They told us they wouldn’t be making the usual week-long trips to the beach; they would stay in remote locations for a month at a time, seeking out exciting and even dangerous pursuits wherever they could. Her photos and home videos are fascinating to watch and are reminiscent of the recent fire of love, an equally romantic documentary in this sense. Rita and Jerry’s open personalities were devoted to each other, adventurous and charismatic; it is impossible not to be captivated.

One of the most unique elements of The Thief Collector They are your recreations. Of course these are common in documentaries to provide visual reference points for key events and to break up the interview format. But these can often feel underdone and distract from a serious documentary. Here, the filmmakers lean into the contrived nature of these recreations and aim for comedy rather than realism. Complete with the obvious use of green screen and an assortment of fake mustaches, these recreations stand out from the crowd. Choices like this show a clarity of vision and resolve from the filmmakers that is commendable.

Related: The Art of Documentary Podcast is interviewing some of today’s most fascinating filmmakers

Lack of evidence raises concerns

Ocher Woman in The Thief Collector

The descriptions of the crime itself and of Rita and Jerry as people take us halfway through the 96-minute running time, and this is where the documentary starts to go off the rails. With no more factual information about the couple to discuss, the narrative drifts into speculation. He questions why a couple who seems so normal would do such a terrible thing and wonders what other crimes they must have committed. But with shaky footing and a lack of evidence to back up his extrapolations, it’s hard to accept these moments of supposed revelation.

The narrative we are given invites us to wonder that schoolteachers who were loved by their family and alumni could do something like this, but this does not align with the actual portrait that is painted of Rita and Jerry. His house is full of art, so it’s obviously something of interest to him; their travel agent described them as “adrenaline junkies”, and the crime itself was simple: they broke in, distracted the guard, and made off with the painting. When you present the facts this way, it’s incredibly easy to believe that this was something they could do. While art theft is of course not a victimless crime, no one was physically hurt. It was a selfish act rather than malicious, and they did not have to resort to violence to achieve it.

So when the documentary asks us to accept its speculation, it’s hard to unite when the facts we’ve just shown contradict the following conjectures. With the subject matter of an art heist being somewhat tame compared to most true crime documentaries, it seems like they’re looking for the wow factor to compete, but the story just isn’t there. documentaries like three identical strangers they have taken 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 CollectorThe story of is more interesting than mind-blowing, and it would have been more successful if it had simply relied on its strengths: a good story and an interesting central pair.

While the interviews chosen for the film are excellently done, there is a gap where it would have been helpful to have a more authoritative voice on Rita and Jerry’s true selves. If there had been someone interviewed who actually knew them, rather than family who rarely saw them and casual friends, there would have been less need for guesswork. Rita and Jerry’s children, a son and a daughter, are briefly mentioned in the documentary. They told us that there were very few photos of the children in their house compared to photos of themselves and that their son has “problems” and is unable to work. Hearing more about her relationship with her children, or even hearing from the children themselves, could have filled this void.

Related: 9 Documentaries That Are Better Than Movies On The Same Subject

Unbalanced tone topples second half

Rita and Jerry Alter in The Thief Collector

This attempt to force a sense of darkness into the documentary’s narrative is what puts the aforementioned campy re-enactments at odds with the film’s second half. These scenes are light and fun and are deliberately positioned not to be taken too seriously. So when we’re invited to believe that Rita and Jerry are more sinister than they first appeared, we’re still shown these exaggerated depictions of their behavior and this makes it all the more difficult 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, misinterpreting the material they had. It’s clear from the direction of this story and the way it’s been promoted that they were looking to shock and surprise the public with their findings, but the reality is they didn’t really find much.

This strategy comes at the cost of what was right under their noses: a scheming couple full of character who, in all likelihood, managed to steal a multi-million dollar painting. This alone was enough for a great and entertaining documentary. But unfortunately, at best, they ended up with an interesting exploration of events both real and theoretical. At its worst, it’s unfair, almost dangerous, to speculate about people not being around to defend themselves.

by FilmRise, The Thief Collector will be released on demand on May 19.

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