It’s always a risky proposition to launch a documentary project on faith, confident—or at least hopeful—that interesting things will happen while the camera is rolling. Norwegian filmmaker Benjamin Ree gets both lucky and unlucky with The Painter And The Thief, his portrait of the unconventional friendship that develops between a moderately successful artist and a man who stole two of her most significant works from the gallery where they were on display. Both the artist, Barbora Kysilkova, and the thief, Karl-Bertil Nordland, are fascinating figures, eminently worthy of Ree’s deep dive into their dynamic. The inherent danger of this filmmaking method, however, is that life may not fully cooperate. Twists and turns shape the narrative, but not always to Ree’s benefit; he responds by scrambling his film’s chronology in ways that threaten to rupture any sense of trust between director and viewer. Questions that one might ordinarily have dismissed instead take hold and fester. Just how real is any of this?
A bit of research suggests that nothing in the film was fabricated, though one can never know whether and to what degree people modify their behavior when they’re aware that it’s being recorded. Ree, who’d vaguely planned to make a film about art theft, was initially drawn to Kysilkova after reading about the robbery, and understandably became excited when he discovered that she had reached out to Nordland in court, asking him whether he might be willing to pose for her. Recovering from heroin addiction then turning to crime in an effort to score, Nordland proves to be a far more sensitive soul than one might guess from the tattoos on his neck (“Honor Among Thieves”) and across his chest (“Snitchers Are A Dying Breed”). When Kysilkova reveals her first portrait of him, still in progress, he weeps uncontrollably at the sight of it, so overcome with emotion that a bona fide nervous breakdown briefly seems possible. This amazing scene occurs quite early in the film, and it’s anybody guess what might happen next—especially since Ree teases the question of what happened to the two stolen paintings. Nordland claims not to remember.
That’s one of several areas in which The Painter And The Thief takes strategic liberties of uncertain efficacy. Ostensibly, the film is about its central relationship, not an unsolved mystery; Kysilkova accepts Nordland’s explanation (even as she can’t quite seem to believe that being high could make someone completely forget what he did with a painting he stole), and the subject is eventually dropped. If the paintings were in fact irretrievably lost, however, no competent director would include so much footage in which their fate is discussed. This apparent inconsistency can’t help but raise suspicion that something’s waiting to be sprung on us—which would be fine, were said revelation integral to the film’s story or theme, as Ree has carefully shaped them. Alas, that’s not the case. There’s just another aspect of the robbery that the film studiously ignores for a while, investigated in footage that Ree chooses to withhold until the end of the movie, on the grounds that Nordland doesn’t learn about those events until later on. There’s no emotional reckoning when he’s told, though. It just seems as if Ree wanted a big surprise.
Granted, almost every documentary makes choices about when and how to divulge key information, sometimes fudging reality a bit in the process. But The Painter And The Thief sometimes lands on the wrong side of the line between feeling expertly manipulated and feeling jerked around. Part of the problem is that Nordland, for reasons unrelated to his theft of Kysilkova’s paintings, winds up spending a year in prison, forcing Ree to compensate for a long period in which his two primary subjects—whose relationship forms the spine of his movie—can’t interact. He does so in part by including scenes of dubious relevance (Kysilkova’s difficulties paying rent on time have zilch to do with anything), but mostly by presenting events out of chronological order, frequently jumping forward to something dramatic and then flashing back to fill in the more mundane details. This inadvertently creates the impression of a film that’s much more complicated and mysterious than The Painter And The Thief actually turns out to be, while inspiring questions—if this documentary was inspired by the robbery, how is there professional-looking time-lapse footage of Kysilkova at work on one of the stolen paintings?—that should never enter anyone’s mind. Even Ree’s decision to almost never show Kysilkova or Nordland acknowledge the camera’s presence starts to feel oddly suspect.
The film’s very last reveal—its final shot, in fact—is exquisite, not so much because it’s unexpected (though it is) as because it reinforces and deepens what we’ve learned about these two unusual people and the solace they’ve found in each other. That’s the only minor sleight of hand that this potentially simple and affecting story really required.