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In our new quarantined reality, the movie theaters are closed but the online media streaming services are wide open. As cloistered millions (re)discover movies new and old, the first hit sensation is a zany documentary that has it all: murder, sex, betrayal, and greed.
Throw in animal rights, polygamy, lawsuits, and a hint of human trafficking, and you have “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness,” a backwater tale full of brackish characters. It is also the best sort of crowd-pleasing documentary, titillating yet sweeping in its scope and the breadth of its amazing access and elaborate story building.
Directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaikilin launched their film project five years ago on a simple fact: there are currently more tigers in captivity than in the wild. Exploring that surprising reality led them into the subculture of exotic animal owners, and in turn the crazy, largely untamed big cat industry. One of the sad undercurrents of “Tiger King” is that the plight of these captive animals almost becomes a sideshow to the main attraction: the small, madcap world of big cat owners and the incredible tale of Joe Exotic.
With the real name Joseph Maldonado-Passage, Joe is a gay, Oklahoma redneck with a bleach blonde mullet that matches his outsized, outlandish personality. He opens his G.W. Zoo in 1999 to house tigers, lions, puma, and other big cats to train and showcase for the public. He’s also suspected of mistreating his animals, making him a target of PETA and other animal rights activists, chiefly Carole Baskin and her Florida-based Big Cat Rescue park.
Joe exudes a roguish charm, but we soon see that just below that surface lies an undisciplined, uncouth, and unpleasant person, undoubtedly dogged by childhood demons that include the deaths of his brother and other loved ones. Joe makes Carole the single-minded focus of his ire, using his shambolic social media presence to hurl unrelenting attacks at her. Some seem to stick, like his assertion that Carole is a hypocrite who also profits off captive cats and low-paid labor. Others are more shocking, like his repeated accusation that Carole killed her former husband and fed him to her tigers. The funny thing, though, is that Carole’s former husband did disappear under suspicious circumstances, leaving Carole his unclaimed fortune and the directors an entire episode devoted to that subplot.
The menagerie of side characters are numerous in quantity and oddity. There’s “Doc” Ankle, whose animal preserve in Myrtle Beach resembles a cult and could be the focus of its own movie. There’s an animal breeder and ex-drug lord in Miami who was probably the inspiration of “Scarface’s” Tony Montana. There are Joe’s multiple husbands, Doc’s multiple mistresses, and multiple shady strangers, chief among them a ne’er-do-well named Jeff Lowe, who becomes Joe’s business partner before things go wildly awry.
Unpacking every plot twist and turn in “Tiger King” would be a foolhardy exercise. Indeed, that’s largely the fun of digesting the seven-episode saga. Goode (who occasionally appears on camera) and Chaiklin expertly weave together the varied story strands using an outstanding array of supporting material, including an endless supply of archival footage their subjects filmed and preserved, along with Internet show broadcasts, social media posts, and talking head testimonials. Some of the participants, like Carole, now lambaste the film, claiming the filmmakers misrepresented the focus of their project. Still, “Tiger King’s” success ultimately rests in the narcissism of the characters, each of them far from camera shy.
“Tiger King” gradually spirals from tawdry to tragic — just when you think you have the storyline figured out, something else will happen to change its trajectory. There are no innocents in this sad story, especially Joe. Still, while the transgressions of his foes boil down to money and old-fashioned greed, Joe’s downfall is a more modern deadly sin: pride. Our celebrity culture are accelerants for this Tiger King’s raging ego and vanity, to the detriment of those around him, including his exploited feline subjects.