Louis Theroux: Shooting Joe Exotic (4 stars)

Louis Theroux: Shooting Joe Exotic

Documentary-maker catches up with the Tiger King story and finds a very different version of Joe Exotic

A year ago, with the nation consumed by lockdown, Tiger King became a word-of-mouth sensation for Netflix. What was it that captured our imaginations: the array of bizarre characters, constant twisting and turning of the story, the true-crime aspect, or an overwhelming feeling of solidarity with the big cats who were caged up when they should really have been out and about in their natural habitats?

While Louis Theroux launched his Grounded podcast around the same time, he must have looked on agog, particularly at the vast expression of love for Tiger King's main attraction. Joe Schreibvogel aka Joe Maldonado-Passage but better known as Joe Exotic became a sympathetic character in the show's aftermath, despite being imprisoned for 22 years (coincidentally the lifespan of a caged tiger, as Theroux notes in this new documentary). His sentence was handed down for a string of violations against wildlife as well as hiring hitmen to kill a rival, the animal sanctuary-owning, and later Dancing With The Stars contestant, Carole Baskin. Exotic's story made its way to the White House with Trump apparently considering a pardon during his final, excruciating days in power. The #FreeJoeExotic movement even had a limo primed, possibly with its engine running, as they awaited the seemingly inevitable news of their boy's release.

That reprieve never came, but by now Theroux was busy on a film that would be a refresher for anyone who binged Tiger King last spring as well as a natural follow-up to his own 2011 documentary, America's Most Dangerous Pets, which featured Exotic among other oddballs and eccentrics. As with his Jimmy Savile sequel in 2016, Theroux beats himself up a little over whether he could have spotted something when making his original film that might have prevented the horrors that came later or, certainly in Savile's case, were already occurring. As well as a neat slice of self-flagellation, it also serves to cut critics off at the pass who might be askance that Theroux was unable to detect these shady characters' darker impulses having spent so much time up close with them.

But hindsight is indeed a wonderful thing. Akin to Savile, Exotic was able to charm those who entered his orbit, and as we see in unused footage from the 2011 documentary, Theroux was also hoodwinked, even going in for a hug as Exotic showed his sensitive side. Thankfully here, he also meets those who long had Joe's number: there's Baskin herself, now running the facility which Exotic and his cohorts left behind in disrepair and chaos, and Yarri Schreibvogel, the older brother whom Exotic had accused of serious abuse. Yarri tells a very different story, and one that tallies with what Theroux now understands of Exotic's dangerous psyche.

While Louis Theroux: Shooting Joe Exotic is an engrossing post-match analysis of the Tiger King phenomenon, it also provides us with a sharp portrait of the documentarian's dilemma: who and what should they believe, and will those filmmakers with an open and generous nature be forever taken in by cultists and criminals?

Available now on BBC iPlayer.

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