The Thief Collector combines the best of both worlds of documentary filmmaking: insight into major concepts and small slices of life. At the forefront are Jerry and Rita Alter, a married couple who have since passed away, and the discovery that they stole a painting in 1985 — Willem de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre,” one of the most valuable paintings of the 20th century. The painting was found, displayed in their house, years later. The theft ended up on the FBI’s Top 10 Art Crimes, which makes it all the more impressive that Jerry and Rita actually pulled it off; it turned out to be easier than one might think.
What sets The Thief Collector apart from other documentaries is the injection of very well-made (and oftentimes comedic) dramatizations of many of the events it discusses, most notably Jerry and Rita’s robbery. Such scenes are filled with tension that is almost certainly fictionalized, but it fits in perfectly with the bizarreness of the central story. Of course, nobody ever expected to find the painting in the house of a deceased elderly couple. And yet, in the end, all of the pieces finally fit comfortably together.
Not only does The Thief Collector go into great detail about Jerry and Rita’s successful theft and life afterward, it has a few words to say about art theft in general. Is it a “victimless crime,” as Jerry and Rita believed, or is there more to it than that? There’s no definitive answer, as the filmmaker largely leaves the question in the viewer’s hands.
There’s also something to be said about the film’s thoroughness, both in its testimonials (including Jerry’s former students, neighbors, realtors, and more) and in its multifaceted depictions of the Alters themselves. We learn the couple are “adrenaline junkies,” constantly doing dangerous feats just to prove that they can, which makes their motivation all the more clear. As the mystery of the characters unravels, their actions and endgame start to come into focus. The tight editing and easy-to-follow structure definitely helps in this regard, guiding the viewers through a maze of new faces and constantly-emerging information with grace and style.
The Thief Collector is an extremely engaging documentary that does everything it should: taking an objective stance to its subjects, while also including varied perspectives that paint a complete picture. It’s very satisfying, in the end, even though by its conclusion we’re not entirely sure if everything presented is entirely accurate. “I’ll never know what parts are true and what aren’t” is one of the film’s final lines, and sums it up perfectly. We are being presented with many versions of the truth, and we are allowed to make the choice for ourselves what we want to believe.
The Thief Collector premiered today at SXSW 2022.