When I was a kid, I remember my paternal grandparents traveling constantly. They would bring back foreign currency, bobbles, and even stuffed animals from their adventures to give to me, my siblings, and cousins — mementos of their trips which they hoped would inspire us to go on some of our own. My grandparents valued education and experience a great deal, even going so far as to offer up financial support so that we could travel post-high school. It was a luxury I wasn’t able to take advantage of myself, but I was often impressed with the tales my relatives would regal me with upon their returns home. All these years later, I never questioned what they were doing or why. I never had reason to. That is until director Allison Otto’s The Thief Collector put the idea in my brain that we never really know what’s going on behind closed doors, even involving the ones we think we’re closest too. Having its world premiere at SXSW 2022, what begins as a story about a painting theft turns into an almost existential crisis as truth and fiction blend together until one is unsure where either begins or ends.
November 1985, the day after Thanksgiving, Willem de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre” is stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art, cut directly from the frame, and it was never recovered. That is, until 2017 when the operators of Manzanita Ridge Antiques went into the home of Jeff and Rita Alter and found it hanging on the wall behind their bedroom door. The answer to one mystery opened several more which no one seemed prepared to explore and, in many ways, understand.
The recovery of “Woman-Ochre” is itself a wonderful thing considering it’s been an ache for the U of A Museum of Art since 1985, but it’s the discovery of Jeff and Rita Alter as the thieves which is remarkable, not because they were Ocean’s 11-types, but because they weren’t. Or, at the very least, that’s what it seems like through the various interviews conducted with friends and family. There’s a constant feeling of excitement through Otto’s pacing of the story, allowing the audience to feel like some new bombshell of a revelation is going to come. Credit where credit is due, Otto takes full advantage of the heist at the heart of The Thief Collector by integrating that energy into a cinematic style that makes you feel as though you’re watching events play out in front of you without losing sight of the real crimes being committed. The film opens with a dramatic reenactment of the theft with actors Glenn Howerton (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and Sarah Minnich (The Ridiculous 6) in the place of the Alters, giving off the sense that something strange is afoot. Later, and throughout the documentary, the mythos of the Alters will be brought to life by Howerton and Minnich, each time evoking a certain silliness amid the sincerity. It’s surreal at times, these reenactments, almost like mini-farces, but each one brings home the point that no one has any idea what’s going on with anyone else and the truth may be stranger than fiction. And this is before the revelation of Jeff’s book, “The Cup and the Lip: Exotic Tales,” which reads like a mix between dramatic escapism and confession. At no point does Otto make a declaration of perspective with each new piece of information or innuendo; rather, she just follows the evidence trail and considers the testimony of all involved. The only perspective you can count on from Otto is that you’re in for a wild ride from start to finish.
There’s a strange thing, though, that occurs the further you go into The Thief Collector as more and twists and turns are revealed — it plateaus. The situation remains odd, new information creating ever more intriguing conjecture, but it remains merely that: conjecture. So, while the reenactments remain amusing, the persistent befuddlement of friends and family humorous, and the evidence seemingly pointing to a grander global impact beyond this one theft, that so much turns to conjecture leaves one with a strange sense of malaise by the end. It’s an adventure with no destination, a quest with no prize, and, despite itself being quite a fun ride, ends up feeling like exactly that, a ride.
Here’s the thing, though. If we’re allowed to go on rides with our fiction, why can’t we with our documentaries? There’s no hard and fast rule that all documentaries have to be self-serious explorations of truth or injustice. Sometimes you get a documentary that’s just following a wild idea as it blossoms to see where it leads. The possibilities within The Thief Collector are truly mind-boggling, especially as it relates to the notion of what we don’t know about those we believe are closest to us. Otto creates a sense of danger in the ordinary as the extraordinary may be hiding right in front of you. One thing is for sure, what we know about the Alters in comparison to what we think we know is minute, making for the possibility of a follow-up particularly tantalizing.
Screening during the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.
SXSW Screening Information:
*Weekday, March 13th, Screening @ 6pm CT, Alamo Lamar E
*Weekday, March 14th, On-line Screening @ 9a CT
*Weekday, March 14th, Screening @ 12:30p CT, Violet Crown Cinema 1
*Weekday, March 14th, Screening @ 1p CT, Violet Crown Cinema 3
*Weekday, March 17th, Screening @ 2:15p CT, Alamo Lamar B
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.