From around the world and throughout history, millions have found solace in creating or experiencing art. However, in the case of humble mid-western couple, Jerry and Rita Alter, the greatest pleasure art can give is when it is stolen. Director Allison Otto’s layered documentary The Thief Collector blurs the line between fiction and reality as it delves into the psyches of these seemingly mild-mannered, world-class thieves.
In 2017, one of the world’s most valuable paintings, Willem de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre”, was discovered in a ranch house in the small town of Cliff, New Mexico. What begins as an expedition to discover how “Woman-Ochre” was stolen in 1985 morphs into an exploration of the motivations and passions associating with the thrill-seeking Alters.
Otto finds a treasure trove inspiration for this art crime documentary through Jerry Alter’s “The Cup and the Lip: Exotic Tales”, a series of short stories that eerily mirror the couple’s own escapades. These unorthodox confessions are brought to life on screen through a series of reenactments, with Glenn Howerton and Sarah Minnich playing Jerry and Rita, respectively. Even though they’re used sparingly, the reenactments are a bit ham-fisted and detract from the thrilling reality that is depicted.
The majority of the film however, focuses on in-depth interviews to understand both the Alters and the nature of their thefts. The interview subject are an eclectic and healthy mix of law enforcement officials, historians, journalists, and relatives that provide a vivid portrayal of Jerry’s obsession with fame (or rather infamy). At some points though, the picture that Otto metaphorically paints is too large, like when she dedicates a portion of the film to the town of Cliff, that it delineates from the crux of The Thief Collector‘s message. Additionally, the last third of the feature seems like an attempt to manufacture controversy, even though most of the claims are conjecture with little supporting evidence.
Overall, The Thief Collector is an engaging art crime documentary that goes beyond the transgression to better understand the mindsets of its perpetrators. While it may not be a very revolutionary documentary, Otto’s bag of narrative hybrid tricks makes The Thief Collector a solid imitation of one.
The Silver Lining
While the reenactments in The Thief Collector don’t mesh perfectly with the nonfiction elements of the film, Glenn Howerton is perfectly cast as Jerry Alter. The actor has brought the obsessive persona he developed on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to Jerry, which immediately imbues the school teacher turned thief with an air of mystery and intrigue.
SXSW 2022 official selection, The Thief Collector, is coming soon to a screen near you.