The Thief Collector Review – An Interesting Tale Stretched Across Ninety Minutes

This review contains slight spoilers.

Over the year, there have been a handful of interesting art crime documentaries: Orson Welles’ excellent mindbender, F for Fake; the unexpected psychosexual drama, The Painter and the Thief ;and the recent fraudster story, Made You Look. Somehow, Allison Otto’s The Thief Collector synopsis of ‘a million-dollar painting is found in a New Mexico house after being stolen thirty years ago’ initially doesn’t garner much interest. They stole it, so what? However, the juicy details and unexpected twists of the film are hidden deep behind the instigating act (though sometimes too it’s hidden a little too deep). 

The Thief Collector begins in the thieves’ home: antiquers and salvagers are coming to see what’s worth buying. Pointy African souvenirs, odd outdoor sculptures, endless ugly, ugly paintings made by the husband, and finally, the stolen million-dollar painting. The Thief Collector meanders a little, giving some context to the painting and telling us about the painter, De Kooning, with cute skits featuring Glenn Howerton and Sarah Minnich being used to recreate the theft of the De Kooning painting from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in 1985.

Yet, the theft is wrapped up quickly, leaving viewers to wonder, “when will we see the criminals, and learn of their odd and unusual lives?” It eventually turns out that the thief couple died some time ago. This is teasingly never actually said within the film, so we don’t find out what happened or why, with circumstantial evidence and speculation being the best we are given. This, along with the general meandering narrative, is the great flaw of The Thief Collector. It lacks cohesion when it wants to be a crime story without knowing the crime, or character study without its characters.

Despite all this, the speculations and the digging from the filmmakers is surprisingly absorbing. It turns out that Jerry (played with a twirling moustache by Howerton), the thieving husband, was not just an awful painter, but a bad writer too. Half of his fiction writing may have been just plain truth. In his short story collection, there’s a story accurately detailing the theft of the De Kooning. But that’s not all; gruesome imagery, affairs, and wild stories of thrill seeking are included too. There’s the intimation that behind these beloved and charming family members were true maniacs.

But just as we lean in closer, the film decides it doesn’t want to push that angle too hard either. The family members are clearly uncomfortable with it, so it’s hard to fault them for this. From art-theft film, to true-crime drama, The Thief Collector takes a final, unexpected turn: to heartwarmer. Those antiquers from the beginning? Well, they bought the De Kooning and could have sold it for millions, or even just kept it, but they gave it back to the museum it was stolen from thirty two years ago. It’s got an ending that kindly lifts up the rest of the film. 

If that sounds like three-stories-in-one, then it’s not exactly that, as you can tell that the filmmakers were stretching far and wide to fill their ninety minute, feature-length runtime. Thankfully it’s never stretched as thin as the many eminently-watchable Netflix series where they wring out a single Wikipedia page into six hours of intros and second unit shots, but The Thief Collector doesn’t exactly make a statement for being included in the aforementioned list of memorable art crime documentaries either. 

Director: Allison Otto

Cast: Glenn Howerton, Sarah Minnich, Brandon Z Ruiz

Writers: Mark Monroe, Nick Andert

Branden Zavaleta

Branden Zavaleta is a Perth-based film critic. He loves movies that charm, surprise or share secrets. Some little known favourites of his are Ishii's The Taste of Tea, Barboni's They Call Me Trinity, and Kieslowski's Camera Buff.

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