SXSW 2022 review from Unseen Films: ‘The Thief Collector’

The Thief Collector

In 1985, Willem de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre,” one of the most valuable paintings of the 20th century, vanished into the Arizona desert after being cut from its frame at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. 32 years later, the $160 million painting was found hanging in the home of Jerry and Rita Alter in rural New Mexico. The Thief Collector takes a deep look at how, and why, this mild-mannered couple pulled off one of the greatest art heists of a generation, exploring the complicated dynamics of family, the contours of criminality, and just how far people will go to weave their own grandiose narratives.


The Thief Collector is a film that is not what you expect. The film is nominally about the theft of de Kooning’s painting Woman Ochre from the University of Arizona in 1985. The painting was cut from the frame and carried off by a couple not long after the museum opened on the day after Thanksgiving. Where it went or who took it remained a mystery for decades…until it was rediscovered in the effects of Rita and Jerry Alter.  While that is a part of the story, the film actually is a look at the Alters and their obsessions. This is not a look at the crime but at the way people feed their obsessions and how seemingly normal people almost always seem to have another side to them.

I should point out that this is not saying that the Alters were bad in that they were secretly murdering people, rather they simply had a side where they went against the fine upstanding citizens they seemed to be to the rest of the world. As a result, the film has become a more complicated and richer film than it would have been if it had just been about the crime.

I really liked this film a great deal. It’s a film that stayed with me through an evening in which I watched three other films after it. Yes, I saw another documentary and two edge-of-your-seat thrillers, but when it was all done I found I was still thinking about The Thief Collector even as the other films were fading from my mind. Hell, I wanted to know more and I reached out to the PR person to get the press notes because I knew that they would give me even more details.

You have to love any film that takes its basic premise to hook you and then drags you into another direction and makes you think about things in a new way. It had my mind going so much that I wish I could have gone back and rewatched several other SXSW films that dealt with obsessions because it put those films into a new light.

This is a neat little film and is highly recommended.


Director:

Allison Otto

Executive Producer:

Bryn Mooser, Kathryn Everett, Tony Hsieh, Andy Hsieh, Justin Lacob, John Boccardo and Derek Esplin, Shizuka Asakawa, and Kathleen L’Esperance

Producer:

Caryn Capotosto, Jill Latiano Howerton, Joshua Kunau

Screenwriter:

Mark Monroe, Nick Andert

Cinematographer:

Rod Hassler and Matt Ryan (recreations)

Editor:

Nick Andert

Music:

Daniel Wolf

Principal Cast:

Glenn Howerton, Sarah Minnich, Scott Takeda, Matt Pittenger

Additional Credits:

Co-Producers: Mary Kay Cook, Heath Cullens, Graphics: Scott Grossman


For more of Steve’s incredible coverage of SXSW22, go to Unseen Films


About Liz Whittemore

Liz grew up in northern Connecticut and was memorizing movie dialogue from Shirley Temple to A Nightmare on Elm Street at a very early age. She will watch just about any film all the way through (no matter how bad) just to prove a point. A loyal New Englander, a lover of Hollywood, and true inhabitant of The Big Apple.