Travis Leamons // Film Critic
TV-MA, about 5 hours and 17 min.
Director(s): Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode
Cast: Joe Exotic, John Finlay, John Reinke, Carole Baskin, Howard Baskin, Erik Cowie, James Garretson, Jeff Lowe and Sylvia Corkill
How the hell does something like TIGER KING metastasize so fast? A little more than a week ago, I had never heard of wildlife entrepreneur Joe Exotic and his nemesis Carole Baskin (founder of Big Cat Rescue). But here comes Netflix, dropping a seven-part documentary about profiting off of caged exotic animals while most of us are in self-exile as a precaution against the Coronavirus. So, we’re watching a documentary about private zoos as we cage ourselves inside our homes— such irony.
For filmmakers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, five years and thousands of hours of footage have resulted in TIGER KING – a hillbilly, damn-near Shakespearian drama. It’s about [takes a big breath] a mulleted country singer/gay polygamist, an animal rights activist suspected of feeding her late husband to tigers, an “angel investor” con man, failed political aspirations, and a murder-for-hire scheme.
The project likely started about animal advocacy but changed focus once Goode and Chaiklin met different characters and personalities. When the story pivots like a tiger, they pounce and change themes quicker than Carol Baskin changes her cat print clothes. Whatever good intentions the filmmakers had, in the beginning, gets waylaid, leaving them (and us) with a long-winded tale full of oddballs and caged tigers. A visual treatise on animal rights where the odyssey results are a big box of animal crackers torn open and scattered everywhere.
If you are bingeing TIGER KING purely for the personalities involved, then you’ll get more than enough of your daily allotment of trash TV. They are the hook that makes the documentary a compulsive watch. The titular character is Joe Exotic, the proprietor of G.W. Zoo in Wynnewood, OK. A larger-than-life personality with a small stature, Joe is a verbal fire-starter who never misses an opportunity to post hateful remarks and salacious videos against Carole Baskin on the internet. Rick Kirkham – a TV news vet that comes in to produce Joe’s internet broadcast and shoot material for his reality project – pegs the Tiger King best: “He was like a mythical character living out in the middle of bumf**k Oklahoma who owned 1,200 tigers and lions and bears and sh*t.”
Carole Baskin is depicted as the “Mother Teresa of Cats.” Her animal sanctuary, near Tampa, Big Cat Rescue, takes in exotic animals but doesn’t release them into the wild. They stay at the “haven” for the remainder of their lives. While the animals may not have the same confined restrictions as found in a zoo, they are still kept in enclosures. This is where part of the hypocrisy between Joe and Carole exists.
The entrepreneur vs. the activist – and neither is a saint. A series just about this feud would be enough. Yet, the filmmakers can’t help themselves and include Bhagavan “Doc” Antle and his zoo – The Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (T.I.G.E.R.S.) – which is operated by a harem of young women. (I’m thinking the Pussycat Dolls for the eventual fictional series, which is already in development with Kate McKinnon cast as Carole.) Doc Antle is an ancillary character and could have just as well been left out. Though his arrival on the scene on top of an elephant, well, that just makes for great television.
If I’ve learned anything from documentaries, both watching and being part of productions, it’s that you keep shooting and have it all come together in the edit. TIGER KING has no less than five editors and more than a dozen different cameramen – including Josh Safdie (co-director of UNCUT GEMS and GOOD TIME). Additionally, they are shooting in multiple locations (Wynnewood, Tampa, Las Vegas, Indiana and South Carolina). The editing whooshes from one incredible development to a didn’t-see-that-coming revelation.
Let’s not forget Las Vegas-based charlatan Jeff Lowe, who uses tiger cubs to facilitate orgies involving him and his wife. He doesn’t appear until the latter half of the series, and when he does, it leads to the fall of Joe Exotic. Joe’s husbands get their moments of laid-back prominence, as do some of the dutiful employees under the Tiger King’s leering stares – including former headkeeper Eric Cowie (looking like Aaron Eckhart circa ERIN BROCKOVICH) and G.W. Zoo manager John Reinke (who carried a through thick and thin mentality for most of his time working for Joe).
There are so many ongoing characters throughout TIGER KING that you need a scorecard to keep track of it all. Even so, Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin give us little reason to give a damn. For seven episodes, this peculiar story, about an activist at odds with wildlife entrepreneurs, grows like a weed that discards its ideological roots and starts to lionize the morally repugnant. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone to empathize with. When Mario Tabraue, who is believed to have been the inspiration of Al Pacino’s Scarface, comes across as one of the few sane personalities in this documentary (he went from a multi-million-dollar cocaine empire to founding Miami’s Zoological Wildlife Foundation), that says a lot.
TIGER KING ends up an unfocused slog that’s driven by personality. Any ideas of curtailing private ownership of tigers in the United States, or questions as to the motivation of owning such exotic kittens, are swept under the rug and replaced with an outlandish murder-for-hire story. Where mud-slinging, fur-flying nonsense is sadly the cat’s meow for the target audience.
TIGER KING is now streaming on Netflix.