The various facets of the art of the heist––from motivation to execution to life on the lam (or in detainment)––make it perennially ripe for high-stakes cinematic treatment. One of the most peculiar such stories of thieving involves Jerry and Rita Alter, retired teachers who were suspected of lifting Willem de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre” in broad daylight from the University of Arizona in 1985. Some decades later and well after their deaths, the $160 million painting was uncovered at their New Mexico home. Without her subjects to tell their own tale, Allison Otto’s The Thief Collector draws from many sources to weave the web of deceit and globe-trotting adventure. Its twist-a-minute peeling back of the mystery around our subjects’ secretive way of life makes for a mostly riveting inquiry into lies hiding in plain sight, yet the results can feel unwieldy with its overstuffed roster of talking heads and distracting, attention-seeking re-enactments.
While the first act details the robbery and 2017 reclamation of the painting, Thief Collector‘s stranger-than-fiction tale blossoms when Otto starts tracing the peculiar life story of the Alters. When the couple wasn’t on a globe-trotting adventure they were planning the next one. Considering their middle-class status, questions start to arise: how did they pay for the travel, not to mention the art and other valuables that fleshed out their home? Recalling great true-crime documentaries of recent years, Otto knows precisely how to structure her reveals for maximum pay-off, adding new layers of surprises at every turn. But as intriguing as each twist is when introduced, they start suggesting cliff notes to a tome that can never be written. And as many questions sit unanswered, she relies, greatly, on her ensemble of taking heads. Results can overwhelm: featuring interviews with surviving family members, art historians, curators, FBI agents, police offers, house clearance workers, friends and students, townspeople, septic tank experts, and more, the perspective starts spinning out of focus, as if setting up the next crazy thread is more important than digging deeper into any one secret the Alters may have buried in their backyard.
Considering its soundbite-style observations, The Thief Collector is memorable in its small oddities. We meet the man who offered $200,000 upon discovering the painting and is currently living out of his van, a bewildering conundrum for which the film’s breakneck pace doesn’t allow further investigation. We go inside a local hang in Cliff, New Mexico––the town of a few hundred the Alters called home––and learn the residents’ idea of magnificent paintings, which humorously resemble Yellowstone concept art. Theories start bubbling around the Alters’ motivations, how their confessions may have been published for the world to see via a “fictional” book Jerry wrote featuring heists, infidelity, and murder. As a hopeful artist who never quite had the skills to draw attention, we hear how Jerry was frustrated with the dead ends of his day job and found the perfect match in Rita as they lived out their “adrenaline junkie” lifestyle, leading to some genuinely wild speculation. It’s not the first time the darkness festering underneath the idyllic American life has been explored, but it’s done in mostly compelling fashion here.
Despite the key marketing still hoping to convince unsuspecting audiences this is a caper dramedy starring Glenn Howerton and Sarah Minnich, the duo only appear in brief re-enactments. And while their vibrant, satirical take on the Alters gives the film some life, it’s a gamble that comes to feel unnecessary considering how compellingly the true story is conveyed with standard tools of documentary. With its whirlwind, surface-level observations of fascinatingly complex lives, The Thief Collector is the kind of scattershot true-crime documentary that grips in the moment but, with reflection, is more entertaining to discuss than revisit for additional clues.
The Thief Collector opens in theaters and on VOD on Friday, May 19.