The best documentaries about artists give you more than a PowerPoint presentation of the artist's portfolio. They let you into their studios and homes, interview their friends and enemies, and dredge up as much old and new footage as possible, digging into the history and context of the artist and how it affects their work. Benjamin Ree's 'The Painter and the Thief' chronicles an unlikely friendship, and explores life's natural highs, shattering lows, and the gradual moments of growth in between.
The way in which Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova (the painter) and Karl-Bertil Nordland (the thief) meet is revealed during the opening credits. In broad daylight, Nordland and an accomplice strode into an Oslo gallery and plucked two paintings from their display frames, carting them out a backdoor. He was quickly caught, but was too high on drugs to remember where the paintings ended up. Kysilkova was confounded, crushed, and curious about the theft. She wasn't a big name, so why was her work stolen? And what became of those paintings? Her pain from the robbery evolves into forgiveness, and an active curiosity to understand Nordland's motivation. When he is sentenced for the theft, Barbora approaches him with an unusual request: she wants to paint him.
Karl-Bertil had been in a few gangs, and spent eight years in prison. The telltale signs of a hard life are literally written all over his face and body ("Snitches Are a Dying Breed" is tattooed over his heart). But, as he eventually reveals, he was also once a traditional carpenter, an athlete and an educator who taught kids with Aspergers. We see him in old photographs looking healthy and handsome, before he became guarded under a tense, self-destructive veneer.
Ree cleverly tells this story out of order, frequently switching back and forth in time, in an attempt to capture both points of view. In private, Karl-Bertil has a difficult time trusting anyone. His reaction, then, when Barbora shows him the portrait that she has made of him, is one of the film's many quietly powerful moments. Ree lets the camera linger on Karl-Bertil's face as he gazes at it, his jaw dropped. His reaction to seeing himself as someone's subject reminds the viewer of the boundless potential of compassion.
This moment occurs maybe 20 minutes into the film. It's not a climactic catharsis; it's just the first act of this friendship. Then, there's the excitement of "What now?" Ree 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 what you might have initially expected.
Ree jumps back to the beginning, the scene of the crime. This time, he follows Nordland's perspective. Throughout the film, Ree will journey with one subject, then retrace the steps of the other. Kysilkova might huff about Nordland falling out of contact; then his turn reveals he's been in drug rehab. This technique keeps viewers off-balance, repeatedly pushing us to question our assumptions about these characters. Through these sequences, Ree not only shows how close these two have grown, but also abandons objective truth. He presents his painter and thief not as they are, but as they see each other.
Ree 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.
Ree explores the backstory that brought Nordland to his brutal rock bottom. He likewise explores the motivations of Kysilkova's attention, for better and worse. Barbora was once abused by a boyfriend in Berlin and fled to Oslo to escape him. Devastated, she gave up painting for a while until a new boyfriend helped to rehabilitate her self-confidence. 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. The concise editing shows his general trajectory through a long period of time. Over the course of the film, we witness his transformation, as he quits drugs, gains weight and starts working again, becoming more like the man he's seen in those paintings. The overall effect is something like 'The Picture of Dorian Gray' in reverse as Nordland seemingly gets younger as the film progresses.
Perhaps the most intriguing element is that 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 drew it. She literally takes reference shots of Nordland's open wounds to use in her work. Kysilkova's concerned boyfriend questions the ethics of this. Their quarrel feeds a savage suspense over where 'The Painter and the Thief' might go next.
This is a story about crime, abuse, addiction, co-dependency, obsession, and the healing power of art. 'The Painter and the Thief' is not a black-and-white narrative with a good guy, a bad guy, and a clear-cut scheme. It's a raw yet rich exploration of the messiness of human relationships, their beauty and depravity.