Undoubtedly, everything documentarian Darius Marder shows in his debut film Loot actually happened, but Marder’s approach to this “truth is stranger than fiction” story is so forced that the movie feels phony. Loot follows Lance Larson, a Utah used-car salesman and entrepreneur who spends his spare time hunting lost treasures from World War II. The movie opens with Larson staring into an empty pit after wasting $100,000 on one of his adventures, and then it tracks him as he cajoles two elderly veterans into helping him find what they stashed overseas. One of those veterans is Darrel Ross, a mostly blind Mormon bishop who hid 20 pounds of jewels in an Austrian farmhouse, but can’t remember exactly where—not even when Larson flies him back to the scene of the crime. The other vet is Andy Seventy, a Nevada packrat who stowed Japanese weapons and jewels in the Philippines, and has a map to the treasure filed away somewhere in his cluttered house, amid stuffed animals, canned goods, pornography, and stacks of forgotten money. While Larson prods Ross and Seventy, he also all-too-conveniently learns about their horrific wartime experiences, and about how their troubled family lives mirror his own struggles with a drug-addicted son.
One of the main problems with Loot is that its subjects are less interesting than they sound. They’re all fairly low-key guys, leading lives that—as captured by Marder—come off as quietly sad, and not especially cinematic. But rather than making a movie about the contrast between the stories they tell and the people they appear to be, Marder keeps positioning them as figures from a dime novel. It doesn’t help that Larson has the odd habit of talking to other people in ways that advance Loot’s story and themes. He’s constantly analyzing his friends’ motivations, or asking them leading questions, and regardless of whether he’s been coached on what to say, the conversations come off as hackneyed. And that’s a shame, because when we first meet Larson—talking about his dreams of fortune and his line of cheap household gadgets—he seems like such a colorful, offbeat dude. Yet the movie ends with him reaching pat conclusions about his life, like some B-movie character whose story is over, not a real person who’s going to keep living and being unique after the cameras are switched off.