‘To own wealth is to be possessed by it'. A prophetic warning to wedge into the opening of a documentary film detailing one of the most notorious heists of the 20th century, is it not? That is, until you realise the quote was written by none other than the thief himself. This air of ironic self-contradiction wrongfoots the audience from the off, and is carried through the entirety of The Thief Collector.
Detailing the theft of Willem De Kooning's ‘Woman Ochre' painting in 1985 and its unlikely discovery 500 miles away in New Mexico over 30 years later, it is clear that nothing in this case is as it seems. Even more outrageous than the story of the theft, though, is that of the suspected robbers. As the documentary unravels a trail of clues, it questions whether unsuspecting couple Jerry and Rita Alter were leading the most startling of double lives. The Thief Collector hones in on close family members as they struggle to reconcile the people they thought they knew with the overwhelming evidence discovered after their deaths.
Directed by Allison Otto, The Thief Collector opens with one of the many flashbacks which pepper the film. Whilst the documentary predominantly features the real-life people affected by the case (the Alters' family, detectives, art experts and the like), the Jimmy and Rita we see in the reconstructions are brought to life by Glenn Howerton and Sara Minnich respectively.
Howerton expertly taps into his signature comedic toolkit, trapping the audience into viewing Jerry as somewhat of an amusing figure. Coupled with the satirical movie-trailer style narration, the comically bad disguises really used during the theft, and the 80s synth music which accompanies the flashbacks, it's easy not to take this heist seriously. Once again, though, we are wrongfooted: it doesn't take long to realise that the real-life Jerry's inflated sense of himself as a tragic figure cheated out of a successful career far outstrips the satirical character portrayed in the flashbacks.
The Thief Collector's greatest strength lies in its strategically crafted narrative for which writer Mark Monroe must be commended. Initially portrayed as a crime so brazen and crude, its perpetrators spoken about with such reverence by family members, you can't help but admire the Alters' audaciousness. But Monroe leaves a trail of increasingly sinister crumbs: the documentary ends with so many unanswered questions, so many tangible, believable, but ultimately unprovable theories about the horrifying extent of Jerry and Rita's crimes, that the audience questions their own convictions just as much as the Alters' family clearly do.
Towards the end of the documentary, Jerry's nephew asserts “I can see my uncle thinking ‘if I can't be famous, at least I can be infamous'”. Yet The Thief Collector's subtle reduction of Jerry to a farcical, unserious character obliterates any sense of infamy he intended for himself. Instead, the audience are left horrified and underwhelmed, the documentary having debunked the notoriety which previously surrounded the case. It expertly delivers a scandalous story without celebrating the perpetrators, deftly fulfilling the moral responsibility which accompanies any portrayal of true crime.
The Thief Collector releases on Prime Video on March 22nd