Netflix’s Art Heist Docuseries Is a Refreshing Change of Pace

“I’m glad I wasn’t bombarded with graphic crime scene photos in this one” is an odd thought to have after watching a documentary series like This Is a Robbery, but here we are. The true-crime docuseries genre is absolutely flourishing, due to its popularity and a battle for content being waged by the increasing number of streaming services right now. Indeed, one could argue that the advent of streaming was a boon for the entire documentary industry, as these kinds of films were rarely the kinds of box office hits that made them widely available to see during their theatrical runs.

But as tends to happen, the market has become a bit over-saturated with true crime docuseries – documentaries stretched out over four, five, six, or even seven hour-long installments that test your stamina when it comes to gruesome real-life tales. And as the battle to rise above the noise grows stronger, so does the “extreme” nature of some of these shows.

Which is why Netflix’s latest true crime docuseries is a breath of fresh air. This Is a Robbery is about an art heist. It’s shocking and unsettling to be sure, but after a flood of increasingly gruesome documentaries that seem to linger on crime scene photos to the point of exploitation (lookin’ at you, Night Stalker), the non-violent nature of this four-hour series is a relief. Moreover, it’s a compelling, twist-filled story that weaves in and out of various communities as it examines the prevailing theories surrounding the biggest art heist in history – and one that remains unsolved to this day.

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This Is a Robbery

Image via Netflix

In the early hours of March 18, 1990, two men dressed as police officers walked into Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and tied up the two night guards, with one of them proclaiming, “This is a robbery.” Over the next hour, the thieves absconded with legendary artworks by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and others worth over $500 million. And the case is still unsolved today, with a $10 million reward waiting for anyone who can recover the lost art.

This Is a Robbery methodically traces the events of that fateful night from eyewitness encounters, testimony, and interviews before then diving into the ensuing investigation by the FBI to try and decipher A. Who did this, B. How they did it, and C. Where all that art went. It’s a tall order given that the case is still unsolved, but director Colin Barnicle does a fine job of weaving all the intricate theories together with new interviews, taped recordings from the 90s, and clever graphics that try and keep this increasingly complex jigsaw puzzle together.

Indeed, as the series gets deeper into the prevailing theories surrounding who may have taken the art, it gets much more complicated. The show does a nice job of sticking to the most credible theories, buoyed by interviews with key investigators, museum directors, and even accomplished art thieves to provide context for the who, what, and why. But even then things start to feel a bit frayed as you reach the end, and ultimately the series can only present a lineup of possible suspects with arguments for and against why each could be a credible culprit. The truth is, as the series progresses and the years go by, it becomes clear that in all likelihood, this art – including The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt’s only seascape – is long gone.

But that doesn’t make the series any less entertaining or compelling, and it’s a fascinating window into the world of art dealing, and why certain organized crime rings may have had motive to keep priceless art laying around. And again, it’s refreshing not to have to sit through Seven-style montages of grisly crime scenes that ride the line of glorifying violent actions. There’s one reenactment that feels like the director is stretching a bit to relay the danger of the situation when the guards were taken hostage, but thankfully the rest of the series doesn’t feel the need to create an air of the macabre just to remain interesting.

This Is a Robbery Netflix

Image via Netflix

What makes This Is a Robbery so compelling, and unique in contrast to the slew of other true crime docuseries available, is that everything about this crime is weird. The show does a terrific job of using experts to relay the strangeness of the heist – from what was (and wasn’t) stolen to the decision to keep the security guards alive. Strange crimes usually make for the most harebrained theories, but thankfully This Is a Robbery mostly stays in the lane of the credible, and backs up each theory with at least a modicum of evidence.

If you go in looking for the satisfaction of knowing who did it, you may come out the other end dissatisfied. But if you’re the type who can hang with ambiguity and would relish in going down a rabbit hole of your own research after the four hours are up, you’ll no doubt find This Is a Robbery a rewarding watch. If nothing else, it’s a terrific palette cleanser after the grisly nature of recent hits like Night Stalker and Tiger King.

Grade: B+

This Is a Robbery is now streaming on Netflix.

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