Treasure hunting may conjure up images of high-seas adventure, swashbuckling sword play, and unimaginable reward, but in Loot, Darius Marder’s intriguing, if insufficiently inquisitive, docu-portrait of a modern-day treasure hunter, the search for buried valuables is associated instead with repressed wartime memory, the fulfilling of a desperate need for quixotic action, and above all, perpetual disappointment. Less a riveting adventure yarn than a character study of its three principals, the film follows Lance Larson, a vaguely dissatisfied middle-aged used-car salesman, as he builds relationships with two aged WWII vets, both of whom, in 1945, reaped the material rewards of a vanquishing nation and then buried their loot before returning stateside. While Darrel Ross plundered a fortune in jewels from bombed-out Munich, Andrew Seventy obtained three samurai swords under questionable circumstances, stashing his pull in a rural Filipino village. Over the course of the film, Larson ingratiates himself with the two men, jetting off to Austria with good-sport fellow Mormon Ross, while searching scatterbrained Seventy’s trash-strewn house for nearly a year for his treasure map, then jetting off on a solo jaunt to the Philippines when he’s unable to find it.
As Larson progresses on his absurdly impractical journey, Marder remains deliberately fastidious in his choice of details. With his careful selectiveness, it always feels like we’re not getting the whole picture, that something’s going on beneath the surface that we aren’t being told. At first this calculated withholding of information, combined with an odd accumulation of synchronous occurrences (for example, Larson’s 19-year-old son has a heroin problem, while both Ross and Seventy had sons who OD’d around the same age) adds a welcome enigmatic air to the project. But Marder’s lack of inquisitiveness, exemplified by his near-complete non-presence on camera, finally leaves too many questions unanswered, most significantly the problem of how exactly Larson knows these two men and what his ultimate intentions may be.
Eventually, the director shows his hand by shaping the material into a brusque exploration of historical amnesia, equating the discovery of buried treasure with the dredging up of forgotten wartime action (in Seventy’s case, the cruel murder of a Japanese prisoner), but even this thread is treated with fairly perfunctory coverage, with the result that the film never quite coheres into an adequate exploration of any one thing. As periodically enticing as the film’s mysteries may be, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the real story lies in what Marder has left off the screen.