With the lines between fiction and reality becoming increasingly blurred — what with the preponderance of “reality shows” and newspeak accounts of everything from the war in Iraq to Midwestern flash floods — it’s almost easy to accept the premise of a documentary about a burglar presented in real time. Street Thief (premiering tonight on A&E, 10PM EST) takes brief pains to bill itself as a “filmed record” rather than a documentary, chronicling the crimes of an actual burglar. But the intent remains the same.
Once we accept the premise that Kaspar Carr, perhaps Chicago’s greatest and most elusive burglar, is allowing a couple of documentary filmmakers to accompany and film him as he commits his audacious heists, Street Thief becomes a compelling, if disturbing work of cinema verite told with a noir slant. Whether we believe director Malik Bader’s claims that he’s intimately familiar with the tricks of the trade the film depicts is largely inconsequential. It unfolds in such a matter of fact way that we’re drawn into the world of Kaspar Carr and his meticulous planning of each job he does. He’s utterly amoral, viewing each hit with a businessman’s eye.
We watch, fascinated, as he details the planning that goes into each heist. It’s by no means glamorous work—he digs through dumpsters for receipts; taps phone lines; surveys his target for months; and generally takes whatever measures necessary in the planning stages before he goes through with the burglary. They’re not glamorous heists, either—usually mom and pop grocery counters, strip clubs, and even a Cinemark movieplex. Carr finds his mark anywhere he knows there will be a great deal of cash when he strikes.
Kasper Carr, as portrayed by director Bader, is as complex as any person we know in our everyday lives. When he’s working, he’s completely focused on the job at hand. But during his “off” hours, he’s just a regular guy. He is even seen barbequeing steaks for his documentarian followers, politely asking them if they’re hungry before he pulls through a fast food drive-thru.
Throughout, he exudes a public persona that offers no hints as to how he makes his living. Much like the starry-eyed filmmakers who fall deeper into his world, we find ourselves wanting to hang out with Kaspar Carr, while every fiber of our being tells us he represents all that we loathe.
Street Thief is a confounding film at best, and therein lays its power. How much of it is based on reality is debatable, which was Bader’s intent. When it opened to much acclaim at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2006, reactions ranged from praise for its gritty realism, to outrage for its toying with the viewer. The fact that it can elicit that kind of reaction is in itself a testament to its power.
Ultimately, it makes us look at our voyeuristic fascination with the outlaw in a way that’s rarely explored in film. In so doing, it forces us to take a look at where we’re going as a society. That alone makes it worth a view.