A fascinating story weighed down by speculation
In a time of increasingly exploitative and gruesome true crime, The Thief Gatherer stands as a kind of antidote. Rather than portraying the trauma of murder victims for the masses, this crime documentary focuses on an art theft. Willem de Kooning was one of the most exciting American artists of the 20th century, collaborating 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 ripped out of the frame and taken away. Despite an FBI investigation, the painting could not be located because it was not sold or displayed anywhere else.
After 35 years, “Woman-Ocher” was finally discovered at the estate sale of Rita and Jerry Alter, supposedly (a word used frequently in the documentary) a humble couple in New Mexico. How and why this strange series of events came about, director Allison Otto reconstructs with the help of interviewees, including an FBI team member, the people who discovered the painting, relatives of the Alter and more. The narrative is given some color by overloaded re-enactments starring Glenn Howerton it’s always sunny in Philadelphia Fame and Sarah Minnich as Jerry and Rita.
Apparently, The Thief Gatherer has a great story ready and backs it up with some creative storytelling opportunities. However, when the filmmakers go beyond the fact-based discussion and enter speculative territory, the documentary loses its bearings and its credibility.
A number of compelling components
The Thief Gatherer works best when it comes to telling things that we can be sure are true. The description of how the art heist and subsequent discovery unfolded is fascinating and a story unlike what we normally see. The interviewees are all excellent and confident speakers, making them easy to trust and follow.
It is crucial that her enthusiasm is conveyed so well that it resonates with the viewer. Even if one viewer isn’t particularly knowledgeable about art, especially Willem de Kooning, it’s still clear how important this multi-million dollar painting is. Sometimes documentaries are only of interest to those who are already familiar with the subject, but the combination of passion and explanation is enough for everyone to follow and be interested in this story.
Apart from the raid itselfOne of the most exciting parts of the documentary is when we learn about Rita and Jerry themselves. Since the two are already deceased, their portrait consists of their own photos and descriptions of people who knew them, such as family members and former students. While their lifestyles were largely simple (both were teachers), what really stands out is the amount of travel they did.
We were told they didn’t do the usual week-long beach trips; They stayed in remote locations for a month at a time, seeking exciting and even dangerous activities wherever they could. Her home photos and recordings are fascinating to look at and reminiscent of recent times fire of love, a similarly romantic documentary in that regard. Rita and Jerry’s outgoing personalities were devoted, adventurous, and charismatic – it’s impossible not to be intrigued.
One of the most unique elements of The Thief Gatherer are his imitations. Of course, these are common in documentaries to provide visual reference points for important events and to break up the interview format. But these often come across as poorly made and distract from an otherwise serious documentary. Here the filmmakers lean into the artificial nature of these re-enactments, striving for comedy rather than realism. Complemented by the obvious use of green screen and a variety of fake mustaches, these reenactments stand out from the crowd. Decisions like these show a commendable clarity of vision and determination on the part of the filmmakers.
Lack of evidence is a cause for concern
Descriptions of the crime itself and Rita and Jerry as characters take us about halfway through the 96-minute runtime, and this is where the documentary begins to fall apart. With no other factual information about the couple up for discussion, the narrative delves into speculation. It questions why a couple who seem so normal would do something so horrific, and what other crimes they must have committed. But given the shaky basis and lack of evidence to justify their extrapolations, it’s difficult to agree with these moments of supposed revelation.
The narrative we are given leaves us shocked that school teachers loved by their family and former students could do such a thing, but that doesn’t match the actual portrait painted by Rita and Jerry. Her house is full of art, so obviously that’s something she’s interested in; They were described by their travel agent as “adrenaline junkies,” and the crime itself was simple: They walked in, distracted the security guard, and took the painting. When you put the facts like that, it’s incredibly easy to believe that they could do that. Although art theft is of course not a victimless crime, no one was physically harmed. It was a selfish rather than malicious act, and they did not have to resort to violence to accomplish it.
So when the documentary asks us to agree with its speculation, it’s difficult to go along with it when the facts we’ve just been shown contradict the following conjecture. Given that the subject of an art heist is fairly benign compared to most true crime documentaries, it seems like they’re going for the shock factor to keep up, but the story just isn’t there. documentaries such as Three identical strangers have successfully trodden the path of the stranger as fiction because they have truly shocking events to tell. If that works, the documentary can even feel more like a narrative film. But The Thief GathererThe story is more interesting than stunning, and it would have been more successful if it had simply focused on its strengths: a good story and an interesting central couple.
While the interviews chosen for the film are superbly done, there is one gap where it would have helped to have a more authoritative voice about the real people of Rita and Jerry. If someone who really knew her had been interviewed, rather than relatives whom she rarely saw 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. We were told that there were very few pictures of the children in their home compared to pictures of themselves and that their son has “problems” and is unable to work. Learning more about her relationship with her children, or even hearing from the children themselves, could have bridged this gap.
Unbalanced audio grinds the second half to a halt
This attempt to impose a sense of darkness on the documentary’s narrative is why the cheesy re-enactments mentioned above are at odds with the film’s second half. These scenes are light and fun, and deliberately positioned not to be taken too seriously. So if we’re to believe that Rita and Jerry are scarier than they first appeared, we’re still shown these exaggerated depictions of their behavior, making the documentary’s progression even more difficult to follow. There is a fatal mismatch in tone here.
Ultimately, the filmmakers approached it from the wrong angle and misunderstood the material at their disposal. From the direction of this story and the way it was promoted, it’s clear that they aimed to shock and surprise audiences with their results, but the reality is that they didn’t really find much.
This strategy comes at the expense of what they had in mind: an intriguing couple full of character who in all probability managed to steal a multi-million dollar painting. That alone was enough for a great, entertaining documentary. But alas, the result is at best an interesting examination of both real and theoretical events. At worst, it’s unfair – almost dangerous – speculation about people who aren’t there to defend themselves.
From FilmRise, The Thief Gatherer will be released on demand on May 19th.