More and more of late I’ve found myself turned off by scripted drama. I’ve found it increasingly harder to lose myself in fiction when we have so many incredible true stories at our fingertips. While many will flock to Netflix for their original comedies and dramas, I find it’s in their documentary output that really excels. Documentaries that place the spotlight on incredible true-stories, structured like dramas with revelations and twists that mean it’s impossible not to let the next episode play on.
It began with Making a Murderer – a documentary series that proved viewers would invest in a long-form documentary series. Luckily for me, and millions of subscribers, Netflix has continued to find mind-boggling true stories that keep us hooked. Just before Christmas, and little fanfare, a series called Don’t F**K With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer appeared. The docu-series tells the story of one of Canada’s most infamous crimes, the murder of Lin Jun. Lin was killed by Luka Magnotta, who courted internet infamy before the murder by circulating videos of himself killing kittens. Here’s what you should know about the man who became the subject of an international manhunt. Possibly the best of its genre, you have to constantly remind yourself that you’re watching actually happened.
The stories Netflix seem to be able to find are so bizarre, macabre and twisted, that it feels almost impossible they’ve not major news the world over. This year alone I’ve enjoyed, The Pharmacist – the story of grieving father Dan Schneider and his attempts to bring down the prescription drug epidemic after his son was killed. More recently, The Trial of Gabriel and Fernandez, which told the heartbreaking story of 8-year-old Gabriel, who was failed by social services in California and was eventually beaten death by his mother’s partner.
These documentaries shine spotlights on aspects of society we’ve never seen before. That is certainly the case for their latest offering, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness which introduces us to the charismatic, flamboyant, fame-hungry, larger than life and ultimately deluded, Joe Exotic. Joe, a budding country singer, owns a wildlife park in Oklahoma which houses a vast number of tigers, lions, and other animals. Like Joe, the staff he employs at the park are misfits, petty criminals, Joe offers them a lifeline they wouldn’t be afforded beyond the gates of his ‘sanctuary’
Joe is the sort of madman that America specializes in: he’s armed to the teeth, paranoid that his way of life is going to be taken of them, and a special mix of fearless and dumb.
Whilst Joe is the focus, the seven-part series focuses on several big cat owners. There’s Doc Antle, whose park in Myrtle Beach Florida is like the Ritz when compared to Joe’s rundown, muddy and disorganized hovel. Antle, who rides around on an elephant, has several wives and throws a birthday party for some bemused Chimpanzees sees himself as a god-like figure. He loves the attention of the camera crew and often goes off into incomprehensible diatribes that will leave you bemused.
Arguably, the most important figure is Carole Baskin. Carole runs Big Cat Rescue. An organization that prides itself in being the anthesis to Joe’s. Carole, a woman still living in the sixties and surrounded by animal plant, has made it her mission to get Joe shut down. Her facility rescues cats from places like Joes.
The main focus of the documentary is the intense and expensive rivalry between the pair. Joe, ever the self-promoter, has a TV station that broadcasts on YouTube. A lot of his content is anti-Carole, calling her all the names his redneck mind can think of and as the first episode draws to a close it is revealed that Joe is in prison for a murder-for-hire plot against Baskin.
This is just ONE of the many threads the documentary uses to pull you in. It isn’t the most narratively coherent of documentaries. It sometimes feels as if filmmakers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin are racing to keep up with the number of twists and turns their story takes. They let each of their contributors, each as bonkers and self-obsessed and as the last take the lead. The filmmakers begin in one place and are forced by events to make an entirely different film from the one they intended. It’s an approach that can generate an almost spontaneous vitality, with every cliffhanger feeling like it’s being experienced by director and audience alike. As a viewer, it’s an exhilarating ride as Joe’s world becomes more and more twisted. There’s a palpable sense that the those behind the camera are holding on for dear life, just waiting to see where they’d get pulled next. Tiger King boasts five credited editors and two co-editors, and each episode contains multiple whiplash moments in which the entire production seems to have been yanked from one version of the story to the next.
Like all of these incredible Netflix documentaries, you’re likely to race through the entire run far quicker than you initially intended and then feel utterly bereft and out of breath when the credits run on the final episode. I found Tiger King strangely comforting in this current nightmare we’re all caught up in and the perfect distraction from the lack of pasta and toilet rolls in my household. Once Tiger King gets its claws into you you won’t be able to escape its grip.
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is streaming now on Netflix Worldwide.