Reviewed by Kristy Puchko
Is there a word for cinema that lures you in with a dark promise, then delivers something profound, surprising, and humane instead? When I first saw the trailer for The Painter and The Thief, I thought I had its number, having seen myriad of true-crime docs. The tantalizing trailer teased a tale of two sides: the painter and the thief. I assumed theirs would be a story of victim and criminal, hero and villain, saint and sinner. However, what documentarian Benjamin Ree offers is far more compelling and so exhilarating that made me relish being wrong.
The story begins with a brazen crime. In broad daylight, Karl-Bertil Nordland and an accomplice strode into an Oslo gallery and plucked two paintings from their display frames, carting them out a backdoor. While the men were quickly caught, the paintings were not recovered. This left a lot of questions for the painter who made them. Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova was confounded, crushed, and curious about the theft. She wasn’t a big name, so why was her work stolen? Why those particular paintings? And what became of them? She also began to wonder what motivated the thieves. However, when she met Nordland face-to-face at his trial, the first question she asked was if he’d pose for a new painting. After he served his time, the convicted art thief visited her studio, where Kysilkova sketched him as Ree’s cameras looked on. So began the start of a strange friendship.
What I expected was for Kysilkova to naively pursue Nordland in the hopes of recovering her lost paintings, only to find she shouldn’t toy with a career criminal. These are the kind of stories that make up a slew of true crime docs: don’t play with fire cautionary tales. While the marketing materials tease audience’s endless hunger for such narratives, Ree’s doc moves past this concept. He refuses to draw hard lines that define his two subjects as good or bad, right or wrong. Instead, he unravels a narrative more complex and captivating than we might dream.
Rather than neat, expositional introductions of his painter and thief, Ree chucks audiences into the story with archival recordings and security footage that show her creation of the lost paintings then his snatching of them. Muffled audio from the trial allows us to eavesdrop on their first introduction. Then, we are crammed into the small studio, where Kysilkova’s alert eyes work over the riddle of him, while his flash with nerves as Nordland strives to be the muse she envisions. Not long after, his guarded façade crumbles as she presents his portrait. Seeing himself as living art, Nordland is so overwhelmed that he weeps and initially can’t bare to be touched. But, eventually the thief caves to painter’s earnest embrace.
This is maybe 20 minutes into the film. It’s not a climactic catharsis; it’s just the first act of this friendship. Deftly captured by Ree’s cameras, it majestically moving. Then, there’s the excitement of ‘What now?’
Ree jumps back to the beginning, the scene of the crime. This time, he follows Nordland’s perspective, gently pulling away the façade to expose the aching heart beneath the tough-guy tattoo that reads: “Snitches are a dying breed.” Throughout the film, Ree will journey with one subject, then retrace the steps of the other. Kysilkova might harrumph about Nordland falling out of contact; then his turn reveals he’d been in drug rehab. This technique keeps viewers off balance, repeatedly pushing us to question our assumptions about these characters. As such, it won’t be Kysilkova recounting her childhood fascination with death or the abusive relationship that once pushed her away from painting. It will be Nordland who shares her life story, just as she will share his. Through these sequences, Ree not only shows how close these two have grown, but also abandons the masquerade of objective truth. He presents his painter and thief, not as they are, but as they see each other.
How authentic can people be when they know they are being filmed? Some documentaries shy away from this question, treating their cameras as invisible observers of their subjects. Ree rejects this coyness, including moments where the performative pressure on documentary subjects is knowingly on display. Sitting in an awkward silence with Nordland, Kysilkova erupts with an apology to the camera crew that she doesn’t know what to say. Later, the pair will quibble about off-camera conversations. When she asks Nordland what might have become of the paintings, he gets defensive. Insisting he doesn’t remember, then chastising her for asking “a thousand times.” Kysilkova shoots back that’s she’s only asked twice, so as not to scare him off. It’s a small moment a minor argument, but one that shines a light on the tension throughout the film. Though they love each other, these two are in a battle for this film’s narrative. But it’s not their only battle.
Ree explores the backstory that brought an aspiring carpenter to a string of crimes and his brutal rock bottom. He likewise explores the motivations of Kysilkova’s attention, for better and worse. On the surface, she is a Good Samaritan, who gave empathy to someone who’d wronged her. Through her paintings, Nordland could see himself as she did, which was emotionally jolting but also cause for hope. Over the course of the film, we witness his transformation, as he becomes the man he’s seen in those paintings. Yet there’s a dark side to their collaboration. Where is the line between empathy and exploitation? Kysilkova was drawn to his damage, and she then she drew it. Literally, she takes reference shots of Nordland’s open wounds to use in her work. Kysilkova’s concerned boyfriend questions the ethics of this and her arguable enabling. Their quarrel feeds a savage suspense over where The Painter and the Thief might go next.
Ree will surprises once more with a final act that is fittingly unnerving, strange and joyful. Yes, this is a documentary about crime, abuse, addiction, codependence, and obsession. It’s also about the saving power of art. So it’s weirdly perfect for it to have a happy ending that seems plucked from a Hollywood heist comedy. At first, it feels jarring. No one would blame you for side-eying the couple’s cutesy climactic onscreen activity. However, because Ree has laced the subject’s self-awareness of the lens throughout the film, this neat ending clicks in part because it is a bit suspect. The Painter and The Thief is not a black-and-white narrative with a good guy, a bad guy, and a clear-cut scheme. Ree realizes we crave such neatness, so tempts us in with it. Then, he delivers a raw yet rich exploration of the messiness of human relationships, their beauty and depravity. Is there a word for this? Yes. It is “sublime.”
The Painter and The Thief will be available everywhere May 22.
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Kristy Puchko is Film Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com