Parsing truth from fiction is a taxing task in Exit Through the Gift Shop, a film allegedly by famed British street artist Banksy, and whose every facet is potentially untrustworthy. The tale it tenders is that famously reclusive Banksy was approached by an L.A.-based French clothing store owner-turned-documentarian named Thierry Guetta, a gregarious, mutton-chopped guy who—having spent years in the early aughts compulsively recording other street artists, such as his cousin Space Invader and “André the Giant Has a Posse” viral marketing campaign creator Shepard Fairey—decided he wanted to include Banksy in his insider-perspective doc on the burgeoning street art movement. But when Thierry’s finished nonfiction portrait proved a spastic, bludgeoning mélange of indecipherably edited clips, Banksy himself took over the project and created this film, all while Thierry, on Banksy’s suggestion, invested everything he had in his own art career, which blatantly and lousily mimicked Banksy’s work and yet, on the basis of an L.A. Weekly cover story and a hit installation show, made him an overnight sensation.
In this last twist, viewed by Banksy and others as a negative development that points to the art scene’s phony worthlessness and the public’s easy gullibility (or is it just another example of the way art recycles that which came before it?), the doc appears to reveal its true nature as a simultaneous critique and stunt, with Thierry positioned as both the embodiment of the obsessive creative spirit and as a shameless imposter. Yet when it comes to what Exit is selling, buyers beware. Banksy’s notorious art-pranksterism immediately demands that the film be viewed with a skeptical eye, and that impression is bolstered by a litany of details, not least of which are copious questionable interviews with the too-good-to-be-true Thierry, Rhys Ifans’s standard dramatic narration, and Banksy’s appearance on screen with his face obscured and his voice altered—thus making it unclear if it even is the artist. Especially as it reaches its amusing third-act twist, during which Banksy and Fairey none-too-subtly deride the pompous Thierry’s heralded stencils, paintings, and sculptures made under the pseudonym Mr. Brainwash, the doc—unaccredited to a director, though apparently “by Banksy”—increasingly comes to feel like a well-orchestrated ruse.
Assuming a traditional nonfiction form that’s light-years removed from its (supposed) author’s daring, boundary-pushing output—which, as with his planting a hooded Guantanamo Bay detainee blowup doll in Disneyland, we’re privy to via Thierry’s fascinating behind-the-scenes POV footage—reinforces the idea that the entire endeavor is a sneaky, comical critique of mainstream art as a sham. Given the copious scenes of Fairey, Invader, and other street artists shot, on location and under the cover of night, by Thierry, there’s good reason to believe that at least some portion of the proceedings are legit, and that Mr. Brainwash (whose work is actually for sale) is in fact a case study of a poseur appropriating and lamely regurgitating better art to great financial and critical success. However, unwilling to offer concrete certainties at any turn, there’s ultimately no quite figuring out what’s what in Exit, an uncertainty that energizes its sociological-snapshot portrait and compellingly suggests that Banksy, his role and participation in the proceedings up for grabs, may well be a real-deal 21st-century postmodernist.